Friday, May 21, 2010


One of the more useful findings from elections research, in this case from Gary Jacobson, is that "quality" challengers, politically skilled and ambitious candidates, are far more likely to defeat House incumbents than are other challengers.  In fact, it's such a big deal that it is possible to get a large partisan effect in fall elections purely from the choices of potential candidates months in advance.  That is, if Republicans think it's going to be a great year for them, and all the best potential GOP candidates choose to run while the opposite dynamic works on the Democratic side, one can show that the results will be a Republican landslide even if there is no other, external reason for Republicans to do well -- that is, even if voters have no intention to reward Republicans or punish Democrats. 

Now, that raises the question of what constitutes a "quality" candidate.  Well, that, and Rand Paul's Big Adventure.  While we know, from Jacobson's (and other) research, that candidates who have previously won elective office do quite a bit better than those who don't, it's not clear what differentiates good from bad candidates.  Is it something about the person -- does one learn how to be a pol from previous (especially successful) efforts?  Perhaps previously successful pols are better at giving speeches, allocating resources, and convincing people to give money; perhaps previously successful pols have built strong ties to district elites.   Or is it about the system, and external to the candidate?  Regardless of whether or not she knows what she's doing, the previously successful candidate probably starts with higher name recognition than a newcomer.  She may raise more money not because she's good at it, but because people eager to support candidates with a good chance of winning will just assume that, say, a state senator has a better chance than a shoe salesman, and make choices accordingly.  For those who want to solve that question, however, the problem is that it's hard to isolate the various things in the real world.  Candidates don't conveniently come with single skills present (or missing) so that we can tease out which traits matter.

All of which brings me to Rand Paul, who surely is setting some sort of record for ugliest first week as a Senate nominee.  Not that he's necessarily going to lose (or that he'll be hurt in the polls right away), but just in terms of the number and the visibility of awkward moments.  He clearly has some solid candidate skills, but knowing how to talk about potentially unpopular positions in an interview doesn't seem to be one of them, at least so far.  I'm afraid that Steve Benen is entirely correct; it sounds pretty lame for national Republicans to be making excuses for him based on his inexperience, although not nearly as lame as Paul's complaint that he's not getting a honeymoon (he's used that one at least twice so far.  Yikes!  Hey, Rand Paul: Honeymoons come after the wedding, not after the engagement!). 

Of course, this is a case of living by the sword and all that.  I suspect that there are plenty of candidates for the U.S. Senate who would do badly if exposed to the national press in gotcha mode; Paul has the disadvantage of holding issue positions out of the mainstream, but then again he probably has more facts at his disposal than does the average Senate candidate  Granted, I haven't listened to him enough to be able to speculate how many of his facts are actually true -- could be all of them, could be only a portion -- but unless it gets to Reagan levels it's usually not a problem to confidently state facts that turn out not to be true.  Unless, of course, the facts are about oneself...that gets tricky.  But holding oddball positions, and having a history of holding oddball positions, is definitely a problem for a candidate, especially one that is going to receive more than his share of news coverage.   Rand Paul wouldn't be a nominee for Senate without the things that have brought him all the attention this week; we'll see now how he handles it over the next several months.

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