How to Interpret Today’s NY-26 Special Election

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Corwin, Hochul
Corwin, Hochul Photo: Derek Gee/AP Photo

The special election for the seat of former Congressman Chris Lee, in New York's 26th district, was never supposed to be close. As voters fill out their ballots today, polls show Democrat Kathy Hochul with a four-to-six-points lead over Republican Jane Corwin, while self-funding "Tea Party" candidate Jack Davis lags far behind but still pulls in double digits. That's surprising, considering the district's historically rightward bent, and it means that the election's tea leaves will be closely interpreted for omens of the 2012 presidential election. Many have attributed Hochul's rise to the unpopularity of Republican Paul Ryan's Medicare-reform plan, which the Democrat has made a central issue of her campaign, even forcing Corwin to explain at one point, "I'm not married to it." But are special elections — which usually take place because a congressman died, or was appointed to higher office, or, in this case, resigned after trying to pick up women on Craigslist — really all that special? In reality, it doesn't really matter: Whether or not the race for a single seat can signal something about the national mood, political pundits from both parties will make sweeping generalizations about What It All Means. Here's what they're going to say, and how much of their spin will be legitimate.

If Democrat Hochul Wins

The Democratic Spin:

Democrats point to this surprising result as the first definitive proof of the powerful opposition to Ryan's Medicare-reform plan. The plan is clearly as toxic as a stroll through Fukushima, as they've been saying all along, and it will likely lead to an Obama victory in November of 2012.

It's true that voters who care most about Medicare are strongly in Hochul's camp, according to polling. But the causality here isn't quite so clear-cut, as Nate Silver explains:

What's tricky about this is that it isn't straightforward to determine whether voters are prepared to vote for Ms. Hochul because of the Medicare issue — or rather, whether they were going to vote for her for some other reason, but emphasize Medicare to pollsters because she has also.

There are also other factors to consider — the candidates themselves, their reputations and personalities, for example. So though Medicare will play a role in the outcome, it will be difficult to tell how large that role will be.

And even assuming that opposition to Paul Ryan's Medicare plan is a decisive factor, how much can that foretell about November 2012? The Medicare plan may be a central issue at the moment, but will it remain prominent in the political discussion fifteen months from now? What if an agreement on reforming Medicare has been reached by then? What if the presidential election, or unforeseeable events, cause other issues to overshadow the debate over Medicare entirely? It's a long time until 2012.

The Republican Counter-Spin:

Republicans will insist that they would have won if not for the presence of Jack Davis, the eccentric businessman pulling in around 12 or 13 percent of the vote on the Tea Party line, and therefore the results are meaningless, and everyone should forget that this ever happened. The truth though, is that if Hochul wins, it's a victory regardless of Davis. Davis may be running on the "Tea Party" line this year, but he ran as a Democrat for the same seat in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and his "ideology is too inconsistent to be readily categorized," as the Washington Post put it. In a recent Siena poll, he draws about the same amount of support from Republicans as he does from Democrats. In other words, if Hochul wins, it won't be because Davis split the conservative vote.

If Republican Corwin Wins

The Democratic Spin:

Democrats will insist that, because this is usually such a Republican-friendly district, they overperformed despite losing. And that may be true, depending on the margin of victory, because this district has been represented by a Republican for 40 of the last 50 years, including the last eight, and John McCain carried it by 6 percent over Barack Obama in 2008. Using that result as a benchmark, it's fair to say that if Hochul loses by a few points to Corwin, the Democrats still beat expectations, and can plausibly claim a sort of moral victory, if not a tangible one. But if Hochul loses by six or more points, there's no way Democrats can spin this in their favor.

The Republican Counter-Spin:

Republicans will claim that a win by any margin, regardless of the "Beltway expectations game," proves that the Democrats' "Mediscaring" strategy has failed miserably and that Ryan's Medicare plan isn't as toxic as the Democrats and the liberal media would like everyone to believe. In fact, as this was essentially the first referendum on the GOP's Medicare plan, Democrats in Congress should now heed this mandate and enact the plan into law.