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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

The Special Meaning Of A Special Election

Don't Read Anything Into The N.Y.-20 Results Unless One Party Wins Comfortably -- And Follows It Up In November

March 31, 2009

With today's special election in New York's 20th District, expect boasting by the victorious party that it is the most important victory in years and a foreshadowing of next year's midterm elections. Some might get really carried away and even extrapolate significance for years to come.

Assuming that the margin in this upstate contest to fill the seat of appointed Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is 3 or 4 points or less, my advice is to respond "that's nice," then yawn, and walk away.

This is a race either party can win, and that close a race means there are many offsetting factors, with one set of factors just edging out the other. There will be no cosmic meaning to the results. Only if either side wins by about 5 points or more should you sit up and take notice: That would mean one side's voters were significantly more motivated than the other's, which would be worth more than a yawn and a smile.

 

If you are looking for signs of which way the winds are blowing, watch Obama's job approval ratings, the generic congressional ballot test and party identification numbers.

Too often, observers read way too much significance into the outcome of a single special election. Rarely are these districts anything approaching a microcosm of the nation or even representative of much. Typically it's just one contest between two individuals with local circumstances and dynamics coming into play, with voter turnout meaning everything. The turnouts in special elections rarely reach even midterm election levels. In short, they usually do not have great import and are quickly forgotten.

What is more important is if there is a uniform direction to several odd-year elections.

If, for example, Republicans were to win tonight and knock off Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey in November, and pick up the open governor seat in Virginia, then it is fair to say that they will have exorcised the demons of 2006 and 2008. This would allow for more confidence approaching the 2010 midterm elections.

If Democrats hold NY-20, as well as New Jersey and Virginia, they can enter 2010 knowing that even if the wind isn't at their backs, there also isn't a headwind.

A split of these races would mean that there is no huge wave upsetting the existing political dynamic.

Though two Democratic presidents -- Martin Van Buren and Franklin Roosevelt -- actually hailed from this area, historically it has been very Republican. The 2006 edition of the Almanac of American Politics points out that, "despite Van Buren and Roosevelt, this has been a Republican area since the birth of the Republican Party; indeed, Roosevelt never carried his home territory except when he ran for the state Senate in 1910." But in 2006, when the Republican Party's fortunes nationally began waning, particularly in the Northeast, Democratic challenger Gillibrand was able to take advantage of the political environment and beat four-term GOP Rep. John Sweeney, 53-47 percent. Last year, she impressively won what began as a spirited GOP challenge from former state Republican Chairman Sandy Treadwell, beating him 62-38 percent.

The Republican candidate in the special election is state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, a lifelong area resident -- if not the actual 20th District. Scott Murphy, the Democrat, is a native of Missouri, where he was active in state Democratic politics before moving in the last decade to the upstate New York area, where his wife's family has deep roots.

This is a historically Republican area that has become problematic for the GOP in recent years. President Obama's popularity -- he carried the district by 3 points -- is helping to offset some of the longstanding GOP leanings. There is an experienced and established Republican against a Democratic newcomer to the area. Both sides have spent generously, though not at the break-the-bank levels of last year's special elections. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of offsetting forces, pushing and pulling in opposite directions.

If you are looking for some signs of which way the winds are blowing over the next three or four months, it would more helpful to watch Obama's job approval ratings, the generic congressional ballot test and party identification numbers.

Arguably, if Obama's job approval numbers stay at 60 percent or above, he's a real asset to his party. If they are in the 50s, he is in the neutral zone, and at below 50 percent he starts to be a liability.

I should point out that one should focus on averages, like on Pollster.com, RealClearPolitics.com or the daily Gallup tracking, rather than cherry-picking a poll that happens to give you the results you seek.

We have only seen a handful of generic ballot tests this year, which appeared to show a trend from strongly Democratic down to even, but watch for more data. The generic is a poor indicator of the number of seats a party might gain or lose, but it is useful in ascertaining which way the political wind is blowing.

The final and admittedly lagging indicator is party identification. It doesn't move much, but when it does, it means something. In 2003 Gallup numbers, the GOP was slightly ahead of Democrats, and in 2004 the two parties were dead even. A Democratic edge began in 2005 and grew to 8 points last year.

These are much better barometers of what is going on than a single special election.

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