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Watching primary elections

By Jonathan Bernstein

Want to know whether Republicans will in fact take back the House of Representatives next year? Well, the two things I'd want to know about it are economic growth from now through November, and Barack Obama's approval ratings as we get close to the election (which, of course, are influenced by but not completely a function of the economy).

The other key variable, however, is candidate quality, and we're going to learn more about that soon. That's because primary election season continues Tuesday, with the parties choosing nominees in Alabama, Mississippi and New Mexico, followed by a big day June 8, with 10 states -- including California and New Jersey -- holding primaries (plus the Arkansas runoff). On the Senate front, that runoff is moderately important (although it's a likely GOP gain either way), with other important Senate primaries in California and Nevada. As for House seats ... well, I don't know. As usual, U.S. House races are underreported.

It does matter quite a bit, however -- most likely a lot more than the message and electioneering issues raised in this NYT article. While some research has discovered campaign effects, meaning that it's at least possible that the tactics and strategies of campaigns might matter, most such effects are small and are likely to balance out over the course of a campaign. In other words, very few campaigns are won or lost because of a brilliant (or poor) TV ad or a clever (or plodding) speech or debate performance. What does matter are the candidates. There are two major effects worth knowing about for challengers and for candidates in open seats. The first is that ideological moderation is a plus; see Ed Kilgore's post on “move right and win," this quickie study by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, and Kilgore's response. The other is that "quality" candidates, by which political scientists generally mean experienced politicians who have successfully contested elections for some office, do far better than inexperienced, amateur candidates. That's well-illustrated, not only by Rand Paul's foibles over the past week, but also by an, er, interesting Tea Party candidate in North Carolina.

A couple of caveats. First, while both of these effects are significant, they are limited: We're talking a few percentage points, probably, except in extreme cases. To think about elections really does require one to think in terms of multiple variables -- party identification, the economy, the president's popularity and the candidates all have some effect, but they're not necessarily working in the same direction. So, for example, one of the examples that Abramowitz uses of extreme conservative policy positions hurting a candidate is outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who did win his last election -- but in a close race, despite running in a good state for Republicans and against a weak (at least in my opinion) candidate. Second, all of these effects are found in the aggregate. I'm sure that in at least one district this year, a candidate brand-new to politics would in fact be a stronger nominee in November than his or her experienced pol opponent. And of course, political activists are always going to be able to come up with reasons for why this candidate will beat the odds -- and they may be right! All I have here are the aggregate effects.

So: The question, over the course of 435 House contests, is how many (if any) seats will be lost because primary electorates choose the weaker nominee. Over on the Senate side, it seems that Republicans have taken on additional risk in Florida, Kentucky and perhaps Pennsylvania (although no moderate candidate ran there). I've yet to see much reporting from House races, beyond the occasional single-district profile, but I do suspect that there's a story there, that it's on the Republican side, and that the GOP will wind up losing a handful of seats as a result (certainly not as many as 20, but perhaps half a dozen or so). Remember -- many House seats aren't really competitive because one party has a very large edge, and so it almost completely doesn't matter who the candidates might be. And some lousy candidates will squeak through where a better candidate would have won easily, or get clobbered where a better candidate might have lost a competitive race. So even if the "wrong" candidate wins quite a few primaries, not all of them will wind up mattering in January 2011.

Still, a (potential) handful of seats isn't nothing. With a bunch of primaries in the next two weeks, I know I'll be looking for clues about just how big an effect we're talking about.

-- Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 27, 2010; 4:45 PM ET
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If the teabagging candidates keep winning primaries the Repubs are doomed.

Posted by: merlallen1 | May 27, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

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