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Election Update: Return Of The Special Elections

Welcome to our Election Update for Sunday, Oct. 28! As of 10:30 a.m., the Classic version of the FiveThirtyEight House forecast gave Democrats a 6 in 7 chance (85 percent) of taking control. The Lite version gave them a 7 in 9 chance (77 percent), and the Deluxe version gave them a 5 in 6 chance (82 percent). Those are consistent with the numbers we’ve seen all week.

Going down the list of seats that might flip, you might notice some familiar names. Just in time for Halloween, several districts that hosted competitive special elections within the last 18 months have come back from the dead. And the similarities are eerie: Based on the Classic version of our House forecast, the expected vote margins in these districts are looking really close to the actual margins of victory from the special elections. In two of the districts, even the same candidates are running.

We’re having déjà vu …

Districts that hosted special elections in 2017-18 that are competitive again, based on the Classic version of the FiveThirtyEight forecast*

Margin
District Special Election Forecast Forecast GOP Chance of Winning
Arizona 8th R+5 R+5 77.0%
Georgia 6th R+4 R+4 74.1
Montana at large R+6 R+4 72.5
Ohio 12th R+1 R+2 64.2

* As of 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 28

Source: Secretaries of state

This week, we got new polls in three of these contests confirming that they are once again very much in play.

  • If you’re like me, you probably never wanted to hear the words “Georgia 6th” ever again, after 2017’s special election shattered the record for most expensive congressional election in history. But we got two new polls there this week. Republican pollster JMC Analytics teamed up with Democratic firm Bold Blue Campaigns to survey the district from Oct. 13 to 18; they found Republican Rep. Karen Handel (the victor in 2017) leading Democrat Lucy McBath 49 percent to 45 percent. A few days later, Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies, polling on behalf of the McBath campaign, claimed that Handel was leading by only 1 point. (In something of a yellow, if not red, flag, Thirty-Ninth Street did not include early voters in its sample.) Once adjusted for house effects, including the fact that the latter poll was a Democratic internal, both polls showed about a 5-point Republican lead. That’s pretty consistent with our overall rating of the race as “Lean Republican.”
  • We got three polls this week in the race for Montana’s at-large congressional district — which incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte first won in May 2017 despite body-slamming a reporter the day before the election — but they weren’t all they seemed. The first, a Montana State University-Bozeman poll, found Gianforte leading former Democratic state Rep. Kathleen Williams 48 percent to 40 percent. But it surveyed only registered, not likely, voters, and it was conducted across three weeks in late September and early October (generally, a poll is in the field for a few days), so it wasn’t the freshest data. A competing MSU poll — this one out of the Billings campus — gave Gianforte a 3-point lead among likely voters from Oct. 8 to 13. Finally, the University of Montana had the best news for Williams, giving her a 45.8-to-45.3-percent lead. But this pollster’s track record has been favorable to Democrats, and the new poll actually represented a sharp drop from Williams’s 13-point lead in UM’s last survey. As a result, none of the three polls did much to convince our model that this is anything but another “Lean Republican” race.
  • Finally, the district to host a special election most recently is also the closest. The Ohio 12th District once again pits Republican Troy Balderson (now the incumbent) against Democrat Danny O’Connor (with Green Party candidate Joe Manchik playing the potential spoiler). Pro-Democratic group End Citizens United released a poll, conducted by Clarity Campaign Labs, that had Balderson at 48 percent and O’Connor at 46 percent. A few days later, the O’Connor campaign dropped a GBA Strategies poll saying the race was knotted at 47 percent. However, since both polls were partisan, they probably overstate O’Connor’s position, and Balderson actually improved in our forecast over the beginning of the week. However, he still sits at just a precarious 5 in 8 chance of winning.

What can we take away from the fact that these districts (plus the Arizona 8th, which wasn’t polled this week but did host a special election earlier this year) are competitive again? Well, obviously, it’s a good sign for Democrats. As you might remember, 2017-18’s special elections took place in strongly red districts and states that typically aren’t close, but Democrats made them competitive anyway; Democrats outperformed the FiveThirtyEight partisan lean1 of their constituencies by 16 points, on average. If Democrats can match that in November, they’re very likely to win the House.

But it isn’t automatic: There are a few districts we didn’t mention that also held special elections last year, like the Kansas 4th and South Carolina 5th. Despite Democrats coming within a few points of winning both in 2017, both are currently safe for the GOP, according to our model. And of course, even if Democrats match their special-election performances in the districts above, it won’t matter — this time, they need to actually win. Luckily for them, there are enough districts less red than these for them to win the House anyway. But a truly gangbusters performance for the party probably needs to involve picking off a few of these “Lean Republican” seats.

Footnotes

  1. The average difference between how a state or district voted in the past two presidential elections and how the country voted overall. This is based on our old partisan lean formula, which weighted 2016 results 75 percent and 2012 results 25 percent.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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