Exaggerated Fears of Joe McCarthy the Campaigner


At first, some politicians stood up to McCarthy, most notably four-term incumbent Democratic Senator Millard E. Tydings of Maryland and Senator Scott W. Lucas of Illinois, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader at the time. In 1950 and 1952, McCarthy campaigned against those who confronted him and Tydings and Lucas – both well entrenched incumbents – lost their races. Politicians interpreted these defeats as signaling public support for McCarthyism. While politicians on both sides of the aisle continued to privately express concerns about McCarthyism, in public, they fell silent.
Elites may have correctly interpreted the defeat of politicians such as Tydings and Lucas as a signal of public support for McCarthy. It is also possible, however, that they gravely erred.

A new paper (pdf) by Adam Berinsky and Gabriel Lenz tackles the question of how much McCarthy’s efforts affected the 1950-52 Senate elections. Examining news accounts and historical sources, they identified 12 Senate races in which McCarthy campaigned. In each case, he campaigned for the Republican and against the Democrat. They then estimated a model of the outcome in all Senate races in these years, looking to see if the Democratic candidate underperformed in those races where McCarthy campaigned, controlling for other factors.

They find only 3 cases where McCarthy’s efforts appear to have hurt the Democrat (the 1950 MD and IL races and the 1952 AZ race). However, in far more races, his efforts actually appear to have helped the Democrat. See the above figure, which is entitled “McCarthy’s Not So Scary Record Against Democrats.”

Berinsky and Lenz conclude:

…our analyses found no evidence that McCarthy reliably influenced the outcomes of the 1950 and 1952 Senate elections. McCarthy’s reputation thus appears to have been undeserved, arising from selective attention and a failure to appreciate voters’ anti-Democrat mood.

2 Responses to Exaggerated Fears of Joe McCarthy the Campaigner

  1. davidt September 6, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    When I was an undergraduate in the early 1980’s I saw a talk given by UC Berkeley’s Nelson Polsby. He had just written a piece on this very topic and argued that the gap between Washington perception and the political potency of McCarthy was vast. The piece is in the February 1983 issue of Commentary magazine. I can’t access it to verify the content (I’m not sure I read the piece at the time).

    Here is a link to an interview he did about his career which discusses the McCarthy stuff.

    Polsby Interview on his Career

  2. Matt September 7, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    This is a great topic, but not a new idea (as the previous commenter notes). Several biographies of McCarthy document how the *reputation* of McCarthy as shaping election outcomes in 1950 was far greater than what he actually accomplished (see e.g. Robert Griffith’s The Politics of Fear, p. 195).