Skip to main content
ABC News
In California, a Not-So-Special Performance for Democrats

The Democratic candidate, Janice Hahn, won last night’s special election in California’s 36th Congressional District, an ethnically diverse but generally well-off district in along the Santa Monica Bay in Los Angeles. She will succeed a Democrat, Jane Harman, who retired in February to become head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

On the surface, the result might seem like something of a relief for Democrats. Ms. Hahn’s Republican opponent, Craig Huey, spent $900,000 of his own money while receiving contributions from outside groups. Ms. Hahn countered, receiving a fund-raising appeal from former President Bill Clinton, leading to a volley of negative ads.

Ms. Hahn’s 9-percentage-point margin of victory, however, is underwhelming in a district where Democrats have an 18-point registration advantage. The race had received considerably less media attention than the special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District in May, a Republican-leaning district in which Democrats also won under considerably more difficult circumstances. But in some ways it cuts against the momentum that Democrats had seemed to garner from the New York race, and serves as a reminder that retaking the House of Representatives still qualifies as an ambitious if achievable goal.

One common way to benchmark the results of a Congressional race is by comparing them to how the district voted for president. California’s 36th District, for instance, had given Barack Obama about 64 percent of its vote in 2008, or 11 percentage points more than the 53 percent of the vote he received nationwide. Since a vote for Ms. Hahn was also necessarily a vote against her lone opponent, Mr. Huey, we might reasonably have expected Ms. Hahn to prevail by twice that amount, or a net of 22 percentage points, assuming that the political environment was fairly neutral over all. Her actual 9-point margin of victory underachieved that benchmark by 13 points.

By comparison, New York’s 26th District gave Mr. Obama 46 percent of its vote in 2008, or 7 points less than he received nationwide. That means we might expect Republicans to win an election there by twice that amount on net, or 14 percentage points. Instead the Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, won the race by 5 percentage points, a 19-point swing from expectations.

So Ms. Hochul overachieved more than Ms. Hahn underachieved. But the difference is close.

One can, of course, point toward other differences between the two races: turnout was almost 50 percent higher in the New York election, for instance. And whereas Ms. Hochul was seeking to replace a Republican opponent in New York, Ms. Hahn will succeed a Democrat. Nevertheless, if the result in New York was more in line with the sorts of outcomes that Democrats were experiencing in the strong years of 2006 or 2008, this one looked more like a replay of 2010.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.