Republican David Jolly, with the aid of Bob Barker, defeated Democrat Alex Sink on Tuesday by two percentage points in a special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. The district was one of the few held by a Republican, the recently deceased Bill Young, but won by President Obama in 2012.
Some in the press see signs of Democratic doom in Jolly’s victory, but the political science literature is mixed. David Smith and Thomas Brunell of the University of Texas at Dallas found a relationship between special elections and the overall November outcome between 1900 and 2008. But Dartmouth College’s Joseph Bafumi, Columbia University’s Bob Erikson and the University of Texas’ Chris Wlezien at Austin demonstrated that the national House ballot has been far more predictive at this point.
Recent history, too, warns us from making too much of special election results.
In May 2010, Democrat Mark Critz held onto an increasingly Republican-leaning 12th District in Pennsylvania. Tom Schaller, writing for FiveThirtyEight, said the race was “really one worth watching for November bellwether implications.” Republicans gained 63 seats in the House the following fall.
Republican Brian Bilbray won a tight election over Democrat Francine Busby in California’s 50th District in June 2006. A Los Angeles Times headline called the race a “Test of GOP’s Vulnerability.” Republicans lost 30 seats and their majority five months later.
Stephanie Herseth picked up a seat for Democrats in South Dakota’s lone congressional district in June 2004. Her victory in that red state came only a few months after another win by Democrats in Republican territory, Kentucky’s 6th District. The South Dakota race was “closely watched by national parties eager to pick up momentum ahead of the fall campaign,” according to CBS News. Republicans would go on to pick up a few seats in November, and George W. Bush won a second presidential term.
Put it all together, and it’s clear that it’s silly to put too much emphasis on special election results. Not that Democrats can sleep easy. Republicans will almost certainly hold onto the House in 2014. They also have a chance to take back the Senate. But we knew that before the citizens in Florida 13th’s District voted.