2017’s Special Elections Are Telling a Hopeful Story for Democrats

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Democrats have exceeded the partisan lean of their districts in 26 of 30 special elections this year. Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Projecting what will happen in midterm elections is always tricky. Yes, the party controlling the White House almost always loses House seats — though that didn’t happen in 1998 and 2002. Sure, the president’s approval ratings seem to have a very significant impact on the White House party’s losses or (in rare occasions) gains. But predicting approval ratings is tough.

But one bit of objective data you can track that’s not simply a matter of projections is the performance of the two parties in special elections heading toward the midterms. And while no one special election necessarily has predictive value, if you add them up it starts mattering.

That’s what Harry Enten did today at FiveThirtyEight, and better yet, he scored all these elections like a bookie would score a sporting contest: with a “spread.” In this case the spread was the partisan “lean” of every congressional or state legislative district that’s had a special election so far this year, based on its performance in the last two presidential elections, with the last one weighted most heavily (as one would expect). There have been five U.S. House special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in all five, by an average margin of 16 percent of the total vote (ranging from 6 percent in Georgia’s sixth district to 23 percent in Kansas’s fourth district). That’s a lot.

There have also been 25 state legislative special elections this year. Democrats beat the spread in 21 of them, by an average of — again — 16 points. None of the four races where Democrats failed to do better than the partisan lean were competitive contests.

Enten notes that Trump’s approval ratings would historically suggest an 11-point GOP deficit. The generic congressional ballot has been showing a 9-point GOP deficit at present. So the special elections are showing a stronger swing to Democrats than the standard data points.

In any case, it represents a lot of arrows pointing in the same direction.

The president and some of his supporters still cling to the argument that the best indication of his and his party’s popularity is the size and enthusiasm of the crowds he draws at his rallies. But the idea of crowd sizes mattering a lot really does need to be laid to rest. Last year the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech University played a football game at a NASCAR racetrack in Bristol, Tennessee, and drew a record 153,000 fans. It was very exciting. Neither team ultimately won a conference, much less a national championship.

Enthusiasm contributes to good performance in politics as in sports. But you still have to play the games.

Special Elections Are Telling a Hopeful Story for Democrats