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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Measuring Congressional Competition

Lots of pundits and bloggers have been trying to get an early read on the 2008 House elections. I think that much of this analysis has been good because it has been relying on two solid metrics - retirements and party money.

Analysts have been looking at congressional retirements, which gives us a sense not only of how many districts will be open (obviously), but also the expectations that both sides have for the next election. The party with more retirements is more likely to be the party that expects a tough year. Its incumbents retire rather than face a hard challenge. Another valuable metric is Hill committee fundraising receipts. This probably speaks to the enthusiasm of both party's donor bases - which gives us another bit of insight on how the parties think they are doing.

I'd like to introduce another metric for analyzing the 2008 election. Again, it is early. But if we are careful in our use of measuring sticks, we can still get some purchase on what to expect next year.

Scholars have found that a good measure for congressional elections is the state of party recruitment. Namely, have the parties been able to attract "qualified" candidates to challenge the opposing side? This is a good metric for two reasons. First, if a party has had success with getting qualified candidates - it is a sign that the party is bullish about its prospects. Qualified candidates are usually serious candidates. Serious candidates run to win, and so they will only throw their hats into the ring if they think they can succeed. Second, qualified candidates tend to be better campaigners, which is very important. Congressional elections are not simply a consequence of the president's job approval, or the general feeling in the country. These play an important part - however, very often it is the case that the party favored by the public mood has to translate these feelings into political action. They must signal to the public that a vote for them is an expression of their current sentiment - and either an endorsement of the status quo or a vote for change.

Next question - how do we measure qualification? There is no way to measure it perfectly. Any measure we use will almost undoubtedly identify some unqualified candidates as qualified, and some qualified candidates as unqualified. That is not to say that some measurements are not better than others. Whatever measurement we choose, we have to make sure that we apply it evenly and objectively. Furthermore, we would need it to have good predictive power. Because we expect qualified candidates to do better than unqualified candidates, we should find that the candidates our yardstick identifies as qualified win more often than the candidates our yardstick identifies as unqualified.

One common metric that you'll see in academic literature is whether the candidate has won a previous elective office. If he has, he is labeled qualified. This metric satisfies both of the standards I listed in the previous paragraph. We can apply it fairly across the parties, and we also know that previous officeholders win more often than those who have not previously held office. Like any estimate of real qualification, it probably includes some truly unqualified candidates and exclusdes some truly qualified candidates. But it is still a reasonably good measuring stick.

At this point, every state except Illinois is far from its candidate filing deadline. So, to get an estimate of candidate qualifications, we would have to discover how many qualified candidates have either declared or have expressed an interest in declaring. This is not quite as precise as we might like because lots of those potential candidates will turn out not to run. We'll have a much better read on candidate qualifications next June when most filing deadlines have past and we know who is running and who is not. But this just means our metric becomes less precise - it does not become useless. We'll just have to factor in our imprecision when we analyze the data that we find.

The trick is how to collect this data. This would be incredibly labor intensive - but not for us, thanks to Ron Gunzberger and the indispensible Politics1.com. I absolutely love this site. If I could only visit three websites every day - it would probably be Politics1.com, TheGreenPapers.com, and (of course!) RealClearPolitics.com.

Just why is Politics1 so great? There are many reasons - but today's reason is that Mr. Gunzberger is actually keeping track of who is thinking about running and what those potential candidates did for a living before they decided they might want to be called "The Honorable." I don't know how he gets that data together. Quite frankly, I don't want to know. But Gunzberger has an impressive dataset that covers all 435 House contests - so we can indeed get a sense of how many qualified candidates are either running or thinking about running for Congress.

We can use this data to answer the following question: how many Democratic seats have or might have qualified Republican challengers, and how many Republican seats have or might have qualified Democratic challengers?

I came out with 33 Democratic seats and 54 Republican seats. So, the Democrats seem to be more ambitious in their attempts to challenge Republicans. Democrats are either challenging or might be challenging about 26% of Republican-held seats. Republicans are either challenging or might be challenging about 14% of Democratic-held seats.

Now remember that this is just one metric. It is important not to overinterpret the data - so before I do interpret things, I am going to list all of my caveats. First, many important metrics have not yet become available to us - so our ability to draw inferences about the 2008 House contest remains limited. Second, we canl get a better picture of things when we start to use multiple metrics at once - which I have not done. For instance - how many qualified Democratic challengers are there in Republican-held districts that lean to the left? This can make a difference. There are three qualified Democratic challengers in Nebraska - but the single qualified challenger in Delaware is probably worth more to the DCCC. Relatedly, while the GOP has fewer qualified challengers - 75% of their qualified challengers are trying to win back seats the Democrats won in 2006. This means that they are running against freshman, who tend to be more vulnerable than more senior members of the House.

Third, remember that this metric itself has limitations. Above all, it is probably an overestimate of the final number of competitive seats - as some of these candidates who might run end up not running, we should see these numbers fall. Fourth, in many instances - qualified challengers are facing unqualified challengers in party primaries. Just as happened in NH 01 last year, the candidate with prior electoral experience can lose to the candidate without such experience. As that happens, these numbers would change, too.

With my caveats - or as my dad would say, my "CYA" clauses - now in place, here is how I would interpret these numbers. Like contributions to the Hill committees and retirements, I think this metric has real analytical value even though it is still early. Above all, it is an indication that Democratic "elites" - those who actually run for Congress - are feeling more bullish about 2008 than their Republican counterparts. And this bullishness - if it holds - might translate into a real horse race advantage for the Democrats, as they are able to offer real challenges to more seats next year. A party is better able to take advantage of the public mood if it has candidates who know how to win elections. Right now, the Democrats are on track to have more such candidates.

Update: At 4:30 PM EST today, I added an addendum to this column - thanks to a very intelligent email I received from a reader named Sean, who runs myelectionanalysis.com. Read it here.

-Jay Cost