October 28, 2013

There are basically two ways to get hints about the 2014 House elections. One is what Andrew Gelman did today in an excellent post over at the Monkey Cage: Look at the national polling. That helps pick up any direct effects of unhappiness with Republicans after the government shutdown. What Gelman finds is that, at least so far, the real national trend toward the Democrats is unlikely to produce the gains they will need.

The other way, however, is to get at how national trends can affect voters indirectly: by changing what elites do, especially in the choices by potentially strong candidates to run for office or to wait for another chance.

We’ll see soon one such decision: Democrats in Florida are pushing hard for Alex Sink, last seen running a decent (albeit losing) campaign for governor, to enter the special election for the late C.W. Bill Young’s seat in Tampa. She would almost certainly be a strong candidate, and it appears that she’s likely to run.

Sink is known nationally, thanks to her statewide effort. It’s harder to know what to make of other candidate rumors that turn up. For example, a professional poker player just entered a potentially competitive race in Nevada’s third district, formally joining the Democratic Party to make the race. In most places, that’s not much of a qualification for office, but in Nevada? Maybe it is! Political scientists generally use a very basic notion of “quality challengers,” looking only for whether a candidate has previously won election for a lower office, but also recognizing that others might be strong candidates as well.

The point is that those looking for clues about whether Democrats can really pull off a House upset next year should be on the lookout for signs that good candidates are crawling out of the woodwork for them. That may mean they attract more than the usual number of duds as well, but as long as they produce strong candidates for most winnable seats, the stage will be set for a good year for Democrats.

Whether that will be enough to get the majority is another story; they’re still going up against lots of good reasons that the party with the White House usually does badly in midterms. And Barack Obama’s approval rating, so far, is nowhere close to where Bill Clinton was when Democrats did surprisingly well (but not well enough to win the House) in 1998. So I agree with Gelman that the odds are strongly against Democrats having a House majority in 2015. But I am keeping an eye on those candidate recruitment stories.