May 13, 2013

National Journal’s Alex Roarty suspects that Obama administration scandal(s) may hurt the Democrats in 2014. It’s the right way to approach the question — through candidate recruitment. But it’s jumping the gun to assume that the various issues plaguing the administration this week will have any effect at all.

Roarty is right about recruitment. Candidates matter in congressional elections, and the candidates who do best — experienced politicians, usually — are also the ones who are most sensitive to the political environment. Indeed, one famous political science study found that the entire Democratic landslide of 1974 had nothing to do with voters trying to punish the Republican Party for Watergate; it was all about great Democratic candidates who all decided that 1974 would be a great year for them, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. That’s not always true of Congressional “wave” elections, but it’s a large part of them.

So will Democrats, seeing the headlines over the last few days, decide to wait for 2016 or 2018 or later?

It’s far too early to guess at that. Barack Obama’s Gallup approval rating today was 48%; that’s not terrific, but it’s not bad. And the Republican Party remains as unpopular as ever. That’s added up, through earlier this month, to a continuing Democratic advantage in the generic ballot question.

Could that change? Sure — in either direction. And we’re still early enough in the cycle that candidates could still wait for months to decide; indeed, we’re early enough that candidates who have publicly declared themselves out could turn around and jump back in. It’s a mistake to assume that a few days of bad headlines will have any predictable effect on either presidential popularity or the perceived landscape for November 2014; after all, the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 wound up helping, not hurting, Bill Clinton and the Democrats that year. Current Republicans seem at least as capable of turning a potential electoral gold mine into a disaster for them (if, that is, they even get the chance; we’ll see whether the current stories grow into more or fizzle).

So Roarty is definitely looking in the correct place for electoral effects. But the first rule of anticipating reactions to Washington scandals should still be: patience.