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How The Pennsylvania Special Election Could Matter To Trump And Pelosi

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The special election on Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District isn’t the huge story that Alabama’s U.S. Senate race was. But the Keystone State campaign might still have implications beyond just deciding who will represent the people in this district in the U.S. House for the next 10 months.1

Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, is essentially tied with Republican Rick Saccone, a Pennsylvania state representative, according to a couple of polls released this week. An Emerson College survey showed Lamb leading Saccone 48 percent to 45 percent. A Gravis Marketing poll had Saccone up 45 percent to 42 percent.

One piece of good news for Lamb (and potentially Democrats more generally): In the Emerson survey, 63 percent of Lamb’s backers reported that they were “very excited” to vote next week, compared with 53 percent of Saccone’s supporters. That could be a sign of greater enthusiasm on the Democratic side, as we have seen in other special elections in 2017 and 2018.

No single special election tells us that much about the national political environment. But politicos are watching these special elections, including the Pennsylvania race, so closely that they may have outsize implications. First, there’s the Democratic wave watch: President Trump carried the 18th District, which includes some Pittsburgh suburbs but also smaller towns bordering West Virginia, by almost 20 percentage points. So even a narrow loss by Lamb would reinforce the broader narrative of special elections since Trump’s inauguration — namely that Democrats are outperforming Republicans in races across the country and have a strong chance of winning the House in November.

This race could also affect the standing of two of the most important politicians in Washington: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Trump. Lamb has distanced himself from Pelosi, suggesting that if elected he would not vote for her to remain the Democrats’ leader in the House. A Lamb victory could embolden other Democrats running in this fall’s elections, particularly in more conservative-leaning areas, to make anti-Pelosi pledges. That could make it more difficult for Pelosi to remain as Democratic leader after November or to become speaker if her party wins control of the House.

What does Trump have riding on the Pennsylvania special election? Both Saccone and Lamb have spoken favorably about Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from certain countries, an idea that congressional Republicans have broadly rejected. And the president is going to Pennsylvania to campaign for the Republican candidate on Saturday. A Saccone win could help Trump politically and in terms of policy — showing that the president can boost a GOP congressional candidate in a key race and that one of his more unorthodox policy ideas (the tariffs) perhaps doesn’t hurt the party’s electoral chances.

But if Saccone loses, it would be the second special election in three months in which Trump campaigned hard for a GOP candidate only for him to lose. A few days before the December election in Alabama, Trump held a rally in Pensacola, Florida — less than 20 miles from the Alabama state line — and strongly urged voters to back GOP Senate hopeful Roy Moore. We all know how that turned out.

Other polling nuggets

  • About 60 percent of Americans think it’s a “bad idea” that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner works in the White House as an unpaid senior adviser, according to a Monmouth University poll; 24 percent consider it a good idea.
  • 54 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the most support the law has received since its enactment according to Kaiser’s surveys.
  • 81 percent of voters, including 66 percent of Republicans, think Trump “reacts and speaks without thinking very much,” according to a YouGov poll released this week. Just 19 percent of voters said Trump “considers carefully what he says before commenting.”
  • CAUTION: A fake poll — by an entity calling itself BRD Polling — has been circulating for the special election in Pennsylvania. As we’ve written, fake polls are a real problem. Check out our handy guide to help you avoid falling for them.
  • A Quinnipiac University poll found that 31 percent of voters support tariffs on steel and aluminum; half oppose them. Among Republicans, however, the tariffs have 58 percent support and 20 percent opposition. A Morning Consult poll also found a partisan divide on the tariffs, but with slightly more support among voters, including both Democrats and Republicans.
  • A poll conducted for the University of Michigan surveyed 2,000 people ages 50 to 80 and found that 1 in 6 believed that their health care provider recommended a test, medication or procedure that they didn’t need in the past year.
  • A Marist Poll shows that only 41 percent of Americans would want their child or grandchild to grow up to become president, 54 percent would not and 5 percent were unsure.
  • Morning Consult released state-by-state numbers for Trump’s job approval ratings. According to its data, Trump’s net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) declined in every state between January 2017 and February 2018.
  • A YouGov poll found that 59 percent of Americans (more Democrats than Republicans) think the world’s climate is changing as a result of human activity. Twenty-nine percent (more Republicans than Democrats) disagree that humans are the cause. And 12 percent believe the climate is not changing.
  • Gallup’s polling found support for the Republican tax law creeping up to 39 percent, from 33 percent in January.
  • 61 percent of Michigan voters would vote “yes” on a marijuana legalization ballot measure,2 according to a poll by EPIC-MRA. That’s up from 50 percent in the same poll in 2014. (The survey was commissioned by an organization that promotes legalization.)
  • Italy saw political violence and unrest in the weeks leading up to its recent election, and Italians’ faith in their political system in general appears scant. A poll conducted jointly by pollsters in seven European countries found that a measly 4 percent of Italians think their country’s politicians are sincere. Spain and France didn’t fare much better, at 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively. But Italy was at the bottom of the list for several questions asked about political satisfaction in the poll.
  • Polls in Mexico show Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-leaning candidate, as the front-runner in Mexico’s presidential election, to be held on July 1. The official campaigning period will begin on March 30.

Trump’s approval rating

Trump’s job approval rating is at 40.6 percent, while his disapproval rating is at 53.6 percent. Last week, his approval rating was 40.6 percent, compared with a disapproval rating of 54.1 percent.

The generic ballot

The Democrats hold a 47.7 percent to 38.8 percent advantage on the generic congressional ballot this week. Last week, Democrats were up 46.4 percent to 38.4 percent.


  1. The special election isn’t affected by the ongoing legal battles over Pennsylvania’s congressional map. But it looks as though the 18th District won’t exist in its current form in November. If a congressional map that was drawn by the state Supreme Court remains in effect, the winner of next week’s race could end up running against another incumbent member of Congress in November.

  2. 45 percent said they would definitely vote “yes,” 13 percent said they probably would and 3 percent, who were initially undecided, said they lean toward voting “yes” when they were asked to choose.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.