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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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A Few More Considerations

A reader of mine named Sean, who runs the very excellent MyElectionAnalysis.com, sent along the following email in regards to today's column.

I generally agree with everything that Sean says below, and I post it without comment because it stands on its own. I'll just say that any metric of an election that is 13 months away is going to have efficiency problems, which is what we are really discussing. The difference between "politics nerds" like myself and Sean (i.e. people who spent way too much time studying politics at the university-level) and others, I think, is that we like to list all of our caveats right up front. The two metrics that other analysts have been making use of - the money race and retirements - probably have as many caveats as recruitment.

That said, I'll leave it to Sean to fill out my list of caveats.


I hope all is well. Allow me to suggest two further caveats to your "candidate quality" metric.

First, I believe it excludes a number of quality candidates who might not have run for Congress before. Two immediate examples spring to mind: Admiral Joe Sestak in PA-07 and the Republican Four-Star General who is challenging Jim Marshall in GA-08 this time around. I understand that the beauty of the "previous elective office" rule is that it is a very bright line, and that candidates who have never won elected office before tend to be of the Carol Shea Porter variety, so I don't consider this an important one (BTW, do you happen to know off the top of your head the name of the guy who developed the measurement system from 1-4 of measuring candidate quality? Can't remember it, but it was a good one).

[Jay: David Cannon is, I believe, the creator of that scale. I think the work is Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress (1990). I believe that the four-point scale gives different scores to previous office holders, candidates with a prior political job like an appointment, ambitious amateurs who have run before, and then all other candidates. The binary variable I used in today's column is one used by Gary Jacobson and Alan Abramowitz, though of course they use actual general election challengers. It is therefore much more precise.]

Carol Shea-Porter, though, leads me to a second, more important caveat, which questions the efficacy of the measurment. By my count, fifteen of the twenty-three Democrats who defeated GOP incumbents in 2006 held no prior elected office (McNerney, Donnelly, Loebsack, Boyda, Yarmuth, Walz, Shea-Porter, Hall, Gillibrand, Shuler, Altmire, Sestak, Murphy, Carney, and Kagen) (I'm not sure if Brad Ellsworth was an elected sheriff). That's about 65%!!!

There are three possible conclusions to draw from this to build an additional caveat. The first is that prior elected experience isn't such a great metric. I don't think this is correct, if only because the parties would have noticed this and spent a lot less time recruiting state reps and a lot more time recruiting one-hit-wonder 70s pop starts who posed shirtless on their album covers.

The second two possibilities concede that prior elected office is a good metric, but only in "normal" years. Possibility number two would be that in "wave" years, incumbents who see they have a "weak" challenger let their guard down and get swept out. This strikes me as very likely. As I recall, similar dynamics manifested in 1994 (think Hostettler, Souder, Tiahrt, etc) and in 1974 (Thomas Downey) (okay, I don't recall 1974, but I've read lots about it).

The third possibility is slightly broader, which is that in years where voters are mad at Washington (whether at a particular party or in general), they are more favorably inclined toward candidates who have not held prior elective office. This would explain Ogonowski's recent showing in an environment that is fairly toxic to Republicans (Tsongas had never held elective office either, but she was definitely associated with it).

My guess is that there should be a caveat of some sort that includes some variant of the second and third possibilities. And to the extent that it favors the third possibility, in the current environment, it could be advantageous to Republicans.

Best Regards,


-Jay Cost