Debating Electability

This week's National Journal features a piece by YT on the electability question and Hillary Clinton. Subscribers can read the full piece here, but I've pasted an excerpt that includes a theory I had not considered before: in a super-saturated media environment where Congressional candidates can define themselves through earned and free media, the coattail effect is diminished.

Long before Clinton announced her presidential bid, her campaign understood its distinct challenge: to change the perception among many Democrats that she would be too polarizing to win the general election. It is to Democrats that her campaign addresses its arguments. Markos Moulitsas, a liberal blogger who keeps tabs on Democratic recruitment efforts, has written that the party is having trouble finding Democrats who are brave enough to challenge Republicans, because they worry about the Clinton-ticket effect. Some Democrats fret about state legislators in marginal districts. And several freshman members of Congress have told their political consultants that they're not quite sure what impact Clinton will have. But there are plenty of exceptions. Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo, who is a Democrat, is weighing a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Stumbo has endorsed Clinton and says that he would be delighted to have her campaign with him. "The voters who view themselves as conservative Democrats-and we have a number of those voters in our state, particularly in Western Kentucky-that voter personifies the moderate in a large portion of the South. Those voters, the Reagan Democrats, have been lured away from the Democrats by this belief that the party would take their guns away, and on issues that are emotional, like abortion, like gay marriage," he said. "Well, something's happened to that voter. George W. Bush has made that voter understand that all those issues were simply political rhetoric. With the unpopularity of the administration and the unpopularity of the war, those voters are coming home." Clinton, Stumbo said, "can point to eight years of peace and prosperity and low inflation."In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor has endorsed Clinton even though he fears that former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee will abandon his presidential campaign and challenge him. Political scientists have had a hard time quantifying any coattail effect in presidential elections. In general, they agree that a strong showing by a presidential candidate correlates with the winning party's congressional candidates' receiving a large share of the two-party vote. But Yale finance professor Ray Fair found no coattail effect at all when he analyzed the data. Rather, presidential performance and congressional performance were pushed and pulled by the same variables. A number of consultants with years of field experience think that the coattail effect has become less significant. Doug Moore, a senior aide to Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., suspects that the profusion of multimillion-dollar House and Senate campaigns capable of running their own television advertisements greatly increases the ability of down-ballot candidates to define themselves independently from their party's presidential nominee. University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) political scientist Jeffrey Mondak has evidence to support that theory: "Coattail voting should be most prominent when House voters are relatively unfamiliar with the congressional nominees or do not possess alternative voting cues," he has written. David Dixon, a Democratic consultant who works on House races, calls top-ticket worries "overrated." He adds, "I'm not going to be naive here and say that party affiliation doesn't matter; but I think that, in the end, if you run a solid congressional campaign, you get your character out there, generally, those races are about those races." And that's a message Clinton wants voters to hear.