Q&A #2: Multiparty democracy, candidate quality in Senate elections, and Constitutional amendments
With additional posts on the Supreme Court and Australian elections
Welcome to the blog’s monthly(-ish) Q&A. Remember that you can submit questions for future issues here. I read every question and 98% of them eventually get answered!
This week’s questions mostly revolve around handicapping for the upcoming midterms and how to reform the institutions of American democracy—particularly the Supreme Court, federal voting rules, and (interestingly) the Constitutional amendment process.
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Mark asks: “While the smart money is on Republicans winning the House & Senate midterms pretty handily, what do you think the chance is that Republicans underperform relative to what the fundamentals might suggest due to candidate quality (thinking particularly of Mastriano in PA, Lake in AZ)? Is that answerable by comparing fundamentals-only vs fundamentals+polls models?”
This is a good question and one I answered briefly in Saturday’s subscribers-only thread. The answer is that candidates routinely underperform expectations because of their idiosyncrasies, scandals, or deficits in quality. In fact, in forecasting models for the House and Senate, it is a common practice to include a binary variable that indicates whether a person has held office before or is otherwise not qualified to run. This can be somewhat subjective, but it is an important thing to account for, empirically speaking.
As for the specific examples, I am not sure that Doug Mastriano fits the bill of a traditionally “low-quality” candidate. Sure, he is dangerous and more than a bit loony, but he has held office before, has the support of his party, and seems to be fundraising enough. The polls for the race are pretty tight. To be sure, those polls do have him down 4 points versus his opponent, which is not what we would expect in a state that leans about 3 points on margin to the right of the nation when the national environment is around R+2 today, according to generic ballot polls. So he does seem to be underperforming.
Kari Lake, on the other hand, is your classic “low quality” candidate. She is ideologically fringe, has not held office before and despite strong fundraising is underperforming the fundamentals of the R+4 state; recent polling has her down by about 3 points on average. But the gubernatorial primary there is not for another month and things will change before them.
The other place to keep your eye on this is Georgia, where Herschel Walker also gets punished for being a low-quality nominee. Polls there also suggest he is lagging behind expectations based on the national environment — one survey out last week had him down 10 points (though I have my doubts about the validity of that number).
The upshot of all of this is that a partisan imbalance of candidate quality — one party having the lion’s share of low-quality candidates — tends to boost the other party’s aggregate national odds of holding power. And that looks like exactly what’s happening in election forecasts and betting markets right now.
Claudia asks: “What are the pros and cons of increasing the number of Justices on the Supreme Court? And, how smart or practical would it be to do it now (in this day and age)?”
I am not a scholar of the Court, but I can think of a couple of points in both categories:
Pro: Increase the number of justices nominated by the numerical majority (if you do it before November 2022).
Pro: Include more viewpoints in important judicial decisions. To take a potential point from the literature on legislative institutions: There is generally a link between the size of voting chambers and the chance of having successful third parties. More judges may mean more representation off-axis of the left-right spectrum.
Con: Expansion risks making the Court seem more political than it already is. (On the other hand, it is decidedly political, and politicizing it further likely produces more good if you’re increasing representation for the majority, too.
Con: Expansion increases the long-run probability of Republicans nominating conservative justices, who are currently engaged in a long-term battle against political rights and regulatory rollbacks, which I think is bad, and who I generally don’t like because I don't believe in originalism
A few other considerations. First, why should we be stuck with 9 anyway? That number doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution. There is nothing magic about the number nine. If you wanted a magical number you might be better off with a prime number. Perhaps 11 or 13. Or, if we’re getting crazy, 17.
Second, you could always let the size of the court vary. Some law professors have suggested letting every president nominate one or two new justices at the beginning of their term and letting that be that; not filling seats that go vacant because of deaths or retirement, not passing new laws to expand its size, etc. That would also ensure the de-facto partisanship of the Court matches the medium-term partisanship of the nation.
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