Hopeless in '14, Hopeful in '16?

Democrats should keep investing in long-shot candidates and causes. After all, that strategy paid off for Republicans. 
So much hope in 2013 for Wendy Davis. So much buyer's remorse in 2014.

No, it isn't a mistake to put energy and resources into elections in places where the odds for the candidate look hopeless. That argument is making the rounds, aimed mostly at the Democrats' long shots this year, naturally, given the election results, though it could just as easily apply to Republicans.

Exhibit A for those who are second-guessing these low-odds political investments is the Wendy Davis campaign in Texas. Yes, she got clobbered, and it was a disaster for Democrats. Yes, the result was predictable.

But a year ago, it was still quite plausible - not likely, but plausible -- that Republicans might wind up with an inexperienced Tea Party candidate on their hands. It turned out that Republican challenger Greg Abbott beat back that threat easily, then ran an excellent campaign while Davis ran a poor and disorganized one. Thus the landslide. That doesn't make the decision to invest in Davis a bad one; it just means it didn't work out.

The same is true in Kentucky. Just because Alison Lundergan Grimes lost badly to Senator Mitch Connell doesn't mean Democrats erred in the support they gave her (which seems to be the takeaway from an analysis of the race by Nate Cohn and Derek Willis of the Upshot).

Similarly, consider Lawrence Lessig's Mayday PAC, which supports campaign finance reform. A Politico article today argued that the Harvard law professor's movement wasted donor money by supporting losing candidates in South Dakota and Kansas.

There was nothing wrong with Lessig's attempt to gain popular support for his good-government movement. It's unfortunate for him that no one cares about it, but the last thing we should do is tell people who support unpopular policies (or, in this case, positions which a lot of people support but not passionately enough to base their votes on them) to give up and go home. 1

Besides, we don't know the money was wasted, even in these efforts. Battleground Texas, the Democratic organization trying to bring voters out for Davis, may have utterly failed to reach any of its goals for 2014. But we have no idea how many people got involved and will be inspired to stay involved in the future.

None of this means the money was perfectly allocated, of course. Parties and the political system would be better served by diverting resources to contests lower down on the ballot (such as state legislative elections) than loading up on the headline events. But that's not happening, so the last thing we (or the parties) need is further concentration on only the campaigns expected to be very close.

The benefits of investing in long shots is easier to see in campaigns this year where Republicans came close despite limited expectations - the Virginia Senate election or perhaps the Oregon governor's race. Parties can't always predict when a scandal will break out, or when national or international issues or partisan tides will boil up to bring marginal races within reach. All they can do is be prepared to seize their opportunities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

  1. I'm not endorsing Mayday PAC's tactics or their overall strategy. Regular readers know it's not exactly my cause, anyway. My point is only that we shouldn't be condemning losers and their supporters for trying.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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