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Re: Primary losses

Jonathan Bernstein says that I'm underselling the significance of three sitting senators losing in primaries:

That's three out of around 33, 34 or maybe 35, so lets call it 9%. Moreover, in this cycle in particular a whole bunch of Senators have retired, so we're talking now about (if I've counted correctly) only 26 Senators running for re-election. Two have lost. The third is in deep trouble today. Two more -- Bennet in Colorado and McCain in Arizona -- face serious challenges. So if Lincoln does lose today, we're already over 10%, and it could go as high as 23%. Is that a lot? It seems like a lot to me...I suspect that it will seem like a lot to Senators in the future who have to choose whether to antagonize their own party activists or swing voters.

On that last point, we certainly agree.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 8, 2010; 1:11 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Comments

The whole argument assumes that the Social-Democratic Party Senate candidate from Arkansas has a chance of winning in November, which doesn't seem to be a good bet.

If the winner of the primary has little or no chance of actually winning the general election, what the "base" does during the primary is somewhat irrelevant: the good news is that the grip of "union" corporations on electioneering has been substantially weakened and the weakness is evident as early as the primaries.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 8, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

"...I suspect that it will seem like a lot to Senators in the future who have to choose whether to antagonize their own party activists or swing voters."

There are no swing voters in Utah, so that's an easy one. There is no such thing as too far to the right in Utah in a statewide race.

The Pennsylvania example is very problematic as any kind of national indicator. Specter changed parties, and that's a always going to make for an unattractive incumbent in a primary. Moreover, I get the feeling that at 80 years of age and after 6 full terms in the Senate, even some of Specter's admirers felt that it was time for fresh blood. Sestak used brilliantly timed well-made negative ads. It is difficult to generalize any lessons from the highly unusual circumstances in that race.

The Blanche Lincoln - Bill Halter race is really the most significant one as a possible "bellwether" for the power of an activist base. Still, Halter has proven to be a very smart and articulate candidate, and if he does succeed in upsetting Lincoln, credit may be due as much to the quality of his campaign as to his ideological appeal to base voters.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 8, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

@rmgregory: "The whole argument assumes that the Social-Democratic Party Senate candidate from Arkansas has a chance of winning in November, which doesn't seem to be a good bet."

It's not unreasonable. A Democrat has held that seat since 1879,

All I think the current primaries indicate is that, when the economy is sour, the electorate gets irritable. And if you can't either do something about it, or make people believe you are doing something about it, you're vulnerable to primary challenges and may end up getting kicked out in your incumbent.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 8, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Per my previous post, the one Senate incumbent primary upset that would have been arguably interesting (Arkansas) failed to materialize (although it was close), once again proving the wisdom of Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local."

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 9, 2010 12:28 AM | Report abuse

The worry with statistics like these is that because the numbers are so small, it doesn't take much noise to cause a significant deviation in result.

And we know that there is all sorts of "noise" in something as unique and particular as a Senate race.

If in a normal year the number of incumbents flipped in their primary averages 1.5 that would put the turnover rate at 1.5/33 or 4.5%
Consulting the binomial distribution for n=33,k=3, and p=1.5/33, we find the probability that we have a 3-flip year purely at random is 12.7%

Which is a somewhat long way of saying, that if we get one more primary loss for completely unrelated reasons, it might make a normal year might end up looking like primary flipping year. And we should expect that this will happen at least once every ten years.

Posted by: zosima | June 9, 2010 3:11 AM | Report abuse

Whoops, I messed up my math. 3 or more Senators should lose their primaries at random 18.8% of the time.

Posted by: zosima | June 9, 2010 3:24 AM | Report abuse

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