Skip to main content
ABC News
A Special Election May Be a Special Case

I’m generally skeptical about the predictive value of special elections. They occur, by definition, under special circumstances — after a Congressman has died or left office unexpectedly. There may be unusual rules for nominating candidates; turnout is usually low; and they occur in isolation. Any one race can only tell you so much about the mood of the country, since there are always idiosyncrasies related both to the candidates and the district.

At the same time, it would be nice to get some tangible piece of evidence on what voters are thinking about the parties in Congress right now, beyond opinion surveys. Nationally, some polls show the Democrats having moved into a tie with — or even slightly ahead of — the Republicans on the generic Congressional ballot. Moreover, the Republicans took a risk by passing a proposed budget that contains a number of potentially unpopular provisions, like cuts and sweeping changes to entitlement programs. Democrats will be curious to see if that has had some repercussions.

But the special election later this month in New York’s 26th Congressional District may be an especially inappropriate case for drawing conclusions, for several reasons.

First, as we saw in a couple of special elections in 2009, districts in upstate New York, like this one, are among the quirkiest in the country, not least because they are among the few places where moderate Republicans still exist in large numbers. Many of the upstate districts are competitive in presidential elections, but Republicans can do very well there in races for the Congress when they nominate moderate candidates — and can run into trouble when they don’t.

In addition, like the rest of New York state, the 26th uses fusion balloting, in which the same candidate can be nominated by several parties and appear on each party’s line on the ballot. That gives minor parties like the Conservative Party of New York State and the Working Families Party an unusually important role, which has no analogue in most other states.

More significantly, though, both partisan and nonpartisan polling is saying that the election in the 26th has become a three-way race among a Democrat, Kathy Hochul; a Republican, Jane Corwin; and an independent, Jack Davis, who has the backing of some Tea Party groups. (There is also a Green Party candidate, Ian Murphy, who might win a few votes.)

The polls appear to show Ms. Hochul on an upward trajectory, while the votes of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents are being split between Ms. Corwin and Mr. Davis. Not all of Mr. Davis’ supporters are conservatives — about one-third of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008, according to one poll — so the situation is not quite analogous to the special election in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District last year, where two brand-name Democrats split the vote. At the same time, it’s pretty far from something we can take as a referendum on the mood of the district, let alone the whole country.

More important than whether Ms. Hochul wins or loses may be the share of the vote she gets. The 26th district is regarded as the most Republican in the state, and it gave John McCain 52 percent of its vote in 2008 while Barack Obama was winning most of the state easily. It is also the sort of district that tends to be even more Republican in Congressional races than presidential ones: since the district was drawn in its present form in 2002, the Republican candidate for the House has won an average of 62 percent of its vote.

This time around, if Ms. Hochul can get her vote up into the mid-to-high 40s — as the Democratic candidates did in 2006 and 2008 while facing only one viable opponent instead of two — then the Democrats will be entitled to a round of beer; it will be one small sign (though just one) that the electoral environment has moved toward what it was in stronger Democratic years.

On the other hand, something like a 38-35-27 split — and that may be more likely, though three-way races are extremely volatile — won’t tell us much one way or the other, despite the spin you’re liable to hear from the winning side.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.