We’ve heard this refrain all during the midterm primaries and general election cycle this year: the Tea Party has pushed inexperienced candidates into Congressional and Senate races who are unprepared for public office and therefore weaken the GOP. Brendan Nyhan decided to take a look at the actual data, rather than the assumptions in the media, to see whether GOP candidates are somehow less prepared to run for public office due to inexperience — and came to a surprising conclusion:
When we examine the data, it’s clear that the favorable electoral environment has attracted a strong group of Republican candidates. Despite the influence of the Tea Party movement, the GOP actually has more House candidates who have previously held elected office running for open seats than the Democrats do …
Similarly, there are significantly more Republicans who have previously held electoral office challenging incumbents in potentially competitive districts than Democrats (defined as districts in which the presidential nominee of the incumbent’s party received less than 60% of the two-party vote in the most recent election) …
In short, the Tea Party movement has affiliated itself with a surprising number of non-amateur politicians in competitive and open-seat races. As a result, the GOP still has a candidate quality advantage in the House races that matter most.
Nyhan charts the historical data for competitive House elections going back to 1992. As this chart from Nyhan shows, not only have Republicans traditionally fielded more experienced candidates in competitive seats, but that the trend has rapidly increased in the last two election cycles:
The slight disadvantage in 2006 would have resulted from the difficulty in recruiting candidates for office in what was turning into an obviously big year for Democrats. Interestingly, the Democrats’ experience quotient in this cycle hasn’t dropped at all from 2008 despite the predictions of a massive tsunami for the GOP this November. The sudden surge in experienced candidates for the GOP shows how enticing this cycle is for Republicans looking to win a House seat, as well as the Tea Party’s grassroots efforts have found them.
Dave Weigel says that unbalanced media coverage is to blame for the misconception:
If this is surprising, a lot of that has to do with 1) a weird occasional media focus on noncompetitive races and 2) the ability of some smart politicians to brand themselves as “Tea Party” candidates. Marco Rubio, for example, could have run in a previous year as a savvy politician mentored by Jeb Bush. Instead, he introduced himself as the Tea Party in one man. Same happened with Ken Buck, a seasoned local politician who simply defined himself against a politician who’d held a higher office.
As to that first issue, I’m continually surprised that fringe candidates like Ohio’s Richard Iott get so much attention; his penchant for dressing up as a Nazi is, of course, weird and stupid, but he never had a chance of winning. I’d add a bit to Nyhan’s model, because the Tea Party has swung behind some first-time candidates in House races, mostly businessmen, who are going to win where token candidates used to lose.
The “weird media focus” on non-competitive races isn’t accidental. First, it’s easy to write articles about oddballs; the stories write themselves. They also give reporters an opportunity to paint an entire political movement as fringe by ensuring that the focus remains on the strange, which is exactly what happens with most mainstream media reporting of Tea Party rallies. Howard Kurtz wrote about that very phenomenon earlier this week.
Another point should be made, however. While having campaign experience helps candidates avoid mistakes and improve their messaging, it’s only one measure of a candidate’s quality. I’d rather have a novice candidate like Ron Johnson in Wisconsin running in defense of free-market principles than a big-government “compassionate conservative” who will continue to push for higher spending, higher debt, and expanded government regulation. Furthermore, in a cycle like this, a Ron Johnson has a good chance at beating the entrenched incumbent (in this case Russ Feingold), as Weigel notes in a general sense.
Beyond that, though, Nyhan’s analysis shows that the Tea Party has actually produced a higher level of preparation for Republican candidates than either party has in the last 20 years, at least in competitive districts. Will the media start reporting that?