The Catch-22 of candidate recruitment

(This post has been adapted from work previously done for the Argus Leader and its Political Smokeout blog by David Montgomery.)

As chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party, Craig Lawrence said his No. 1 job is clear: finding people to run for office.

South Dakota Democratic Party executive director Zach Crago puts similar importance on finding candidates. And while the races for governor and Congress get most of the attention, it’s the lower-profile state legislative candidates who take most of the time.

“I am of the philosophy that the more candidates we have, the better,” Lawrence said.

By that standard, Republicans in South Dakota are doing better. Already commanding supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, Republicans are contesting 15 more House seats than Democrats, and eight extra Senate seats. If every single Democratic candidate were to win, they’d still have fewer seats in the House than the Republicans’ current total of 53.

After candidate withdrawals in August, Democrats had slightly fewer candidates in each chamber than they did in 2012, though Northern State University political science professor Jon Schaff said it looks like Democrats are recruiting better candidates than in past years.

“Given the state of their party, this might be the best they can hope for right now,” he said. “That might be a kind of victory, if they can beat some vulnerable incumbent Republicans.”

Simply putting more people on the ballot doesn’t mean a party’s going to win. While they can’t win any race they don’t enter, many of the seats parties are conceding would have been difficult to win anyway.

For example, the eight Senate seats Democrats never even attempted to contest were in the 13 most-Republican districts in the state. In each one, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2,000. The five more they abandoned at the withdrawal deadline all had popular Republican incumbents and in almost all cases heavy GOP leans.

Similarly, Republicans aren’t running any candidates in three of the four districts where Democrats have a voter majority — though they’re also conceding two districts where they have 1,000-voter majorities.

Contested vs. uncontested races

Although it’s never advantageous to sit out a race, it’s often been the case for Democrats that fielding a full slate of candidates in a Republican-heavy district hasn’t made much of a difference.

In 2012, for example, Democrats won 17 of the 70 House seats, or 24 percent. In the 39 races where Democrats ran a full slate of candidates, they won 10, or 26 percent — an almost imperceptible improvement.

In the 2008 and 2010 Senate races, Democrats actually did worse in the races where both parties contested seats. In 2010, for example, they won six seats overall – but three of those were uncontested. In the 22 races where Republicans and Democrats both ran a candidate, Democrats won just three.

The effect was the opposite in the 2012 Senate races and the 2010 and 2012 House races. There, Democrats did better in races they contested than they did overall. (The 2008 House race had essentially identical results.)

But overall, the differences were small. The biggest difference was a mere 3.5 percentage points.

Cause or effect

Setting aside the fact that parties can’t win races where they don’t run a candidate, and that barring major scandal from their candidate it’s always better to contest an additional marginal race, there’s two different ways to think about the importance of candidate recruitment. Either:

  1. Having more candidates causes a political party to win more, because they’re going to win a certain percentage of races they contest and increasing the number of races you contest increases the number you win; or

  2. Both the number of candidates and the number of races won are effects of the general political environment. When the environment is favorable to a party, more people become candidates and more candidates win; when the environment is unfavorable, fewer people become candidates and fewer people win.

Recent history is far from conclusive, but suggests the second interpretation is more accurate.

When Democrats feel like they’ve got a good chance of winning, they’re more likely to invest their time in running for office than if they feel they’re a long shot.

In 2008, a good Democratic year across the country, Democrats ran candidates for all 35 Senate seats and 66 of 70 House seats. Two years later, as Democratic morale plummeted and Republicans were on the offensive, 25 percent fewer Democrats were running in the general election.

“You have a lot of Democrats who look at some of these districts and say, ‘Wait a second, how is it possible for a Democrat to win in a district like this?’ ” Crago said. “Likewise, if you see where the Republicans are not recruiting candidates, you’re seeing the exact same thing from them.”

Lawrence saw the same thing.

“When you encourage somebody to run, you have to encourage them that there’s a potential likelihood that they can win,” Lawrence said. “Nobody likes to lose.”

On the national level, political science research dating back decades, including a landmark 1983 book by Gary Jacobson and Samuel Kernell, found that potential candidates tend to run for office only when they feel their odds of winning are best:

High-quality challengers enter Congressional races when their odds are best. This is determined not only by what is going on in the district, but also by national political tides. Thus, national-level phenomena influence whether high-quality challengers enter, which in turn influences voting within each district.

Looking at this year’s candidate numbers, Schaff noted improvement by the Democrats. But overall, he said, Democrats’ candidate counts look more like those from 2010 and 2012, when they took a drubbing, than 2006 and 2008, when Democrats did well.

“If you want to draw a conclusion from that, it’s that the political entrepreneurs in the Democratic Party are thinking that this year is going to be more like ’10 and ’12 and that, therefore, this is not a great year to run,” he said.