Fundamentally, Some Candidates Suck

Earlier this week Jonathan Bernstein helped take the air out of one argument you hear in the cold war between journalists and political scientists (with “datajournalists” being more or less their allies, except for Sam Wang), and at the same time demystifying one of the practices of the former tribe:

It’s a good time to discuss how the quality of individual candidates and campaigns — as opposed to the party balance of the electorate and national forces — might affect the midterm election results.

Dave Weigel of Bloomberg Politics, on Twitter this morning, tweaked projection models for one big miss: early forecasts that Republican Terri Lynn Land would be a solid candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat in Michigan. She’s been awful. National Republicans have pulled out, and she appears to have scant chance to win. Weigel, singling out FiveThirtyEight, said that “datajournalists who judged Land to be a good candidate should have done reporting.”

It’s correct that good political reporting can, in the right circumstances, beat early forecasts from Nate Silver (or the Monkey Cage, or anyone else using objective indicators). But that hardly discredits what these modelers do or how they do it. Remember, too, that even good reporters can and do get it wrong sometimes; after all, there’s a whole army of spin artists out there doing their best to confuse the picture…..

[I]t’s certainly not the case that political scientists always dismiss the importance of individual candidates. What matters is the context. In presidential general elections, candidates aren’t often important because anyone who survives the nomination process is going to be solid, and campaigns aren’t too important because both sides are going to have ample resources and talent available. Those conditions don’t hold in races below that level.

The North Carolina Senate race provides another illustration of how tricky objective candidate assessments can be. Republican challenger Thom Tillis is speaker of the North Carolina House, but whether that means he’s a good candidate (because he has serious political experience) or a weak one (because his post isn’t a statewide elected office) isn’t clear. Given how few Senate elections there are with similar candidates, it isn’t always possible to figure out how to treat any specific qualifications, and modelers may disagree, leading to differing early projections. That’s fine; as long as the forecasters are transparent, we consumers of forecasts can learn from their differences just as we can learn from how they reach consensus.

Okay, so it seems “fundamentalists” do take candidate quality into account, but rely on “objective” measurements of same, such as degree and level of experience. I assume that’s based on some empirical data on the kind of candidates that typically do and don’t succeed. But still, there’s room for reporting and that vastly underrated quality I try to exemplify in the absence of databases or travel budgets, analysis. Don’t want to brag here, but months ago I identified Joni Ernst and David Perdue as “gaffe-prone” Senate candidates who might have problems with undisciplined utterances. That wasn’t based on my own original reporting or on any kind of data collection, but simply careful observation of what was in the news. But it was spot-on.

I see no reason why datajournalists or political scientists could not put a thumb on the scales of the fundamentals now and then if their rational observations so warrant. And it’s the very essence of being a good reporter to know when a “moment” in a campaign does and doesn’t indicate a big problem in candidate quality that’s likely to become apparent over time. I don’t, BTW, agree with Jonathan that the quirks and records and rhetorical habits of presidential candidates are entirely bleached out by the “fundamentals,” either. You can’t tell me any old Democrat (say, Mike Dukakis) would have done as well as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, or that the combination of Mitt Romney’s background and his “47 percent” gaffe didn’t matter at all. That doesn’t mean the game can always “change” at the drop of a hat, but it does keep a bit of mystery in the process if only at the margins.

UPDATE: Yes, commenters, I realize Joni Ernst and David Perdue could both very well win. But both of them were cruising towards very comfortable, maybe even landslide wins, until their opponents began hammering them for their off-message utterances. So my argument stands that candidate quality mattered in both races, and particularly since both candidates made their qualities central to their successful primary campaigns.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.