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Lost in Hawaii

Yesterday, Republican Charles Djou won the special election in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District encompassing Honolulu. Djou received 39.4 percent of the vote. Two Democrats, Colleen Hanabusa and Ed Case, received 30.8 and 27.6 percent of the vote, respectively, to finish in second and third place.

Placing the election into context is tricky. Djou won, becoming the first Republican to represent the District since 1991. And he isn’t exceptionally moderate — opposing for example civil unions in addition to gay marriage.

Still, Democratic candidates got most of the vote — specifically, their candidates got a combined 59.8 percent of two-party vote, after excluding spoilt ballots and votes for minor-party candidates.

Hawaii has a PVI of D+11. As per the chart that we posted last week, Democrats would ordinarily be expected to get about 65 percent of the two-way vote in such a district in a political environment which looked like 2006 or 2008:

60 percent, on the other hand, would have been a fairly typical performance in a D+11 district in an environment that looked more like 2004 — which of course would be bad news for the Democrats since the Republicans won a majority of seats in the House that year.

However, there is a fair amount of variance in these estimates. PVI is a useful bechmark, but will hardly tell us everything that we might want to know about the contingencies of a particular race in a particular district. Perhaps Hawaii, for instance, is not truly a D+11, since PVI is based on the performance of the candidates in the past two Presidential elections, and in 2008 Barack Obama, who is from Hawaii, significantly overperformed in the Aloha State. Prior to 2008 — based on the election results of 2000 and 2004 — Hawaii had a PVI of D+7. In an open seat election in a D+7 district, getting about 60 percent of the vote would fairly typical for Democrats, even in a good political climate like 2006 or 2008. On the other hand, maybe Barack Obama should still have been expected to have some coattails, even though he wasn’t on the ballot.

You can make an argument that Democrats got more of the vote than they would have if there were merely two candidates. It’s conceivable, for instance, that some of the votes for the moderate, Ed Case, would have gone to Djou rather than the liberal Hanabusa had he not been on the ballot. On the other hand, the internecine battle between the Democrats, and the fact that the national party pulled out of the race two weeks early, may have hurt their their enthusiasm and turnout and could have cost them a couple of points from what they otherwise might have achieved.

Long story short, this election was really just an amuse-bouche that served to whet our appetities, but didn’t really provide much sustenance in terms of our understanding of the political environment. It clearly wasn’t good news for Democrats. But, given the circumstances of the election, the outcome wasn’t out-of-bounds from something that might have occurred to them even in a good political environment like 2008. (Had Djou received, say, 45 percent of the vote, or obviously an outright majority, that would have been a more peruasive indicator that the Democrats were in trouble.)

Also, the election wasn’t such bad news for one particular Democrat: Colleen Hanabusa. Most polls projected her to finish in third place, although some smart observers had warned ahead of time that the polls might be lowballing her numbers. Having done better than Case in the special election, she may have undermined his claim to be the more electable Democrat, which could help her when the candidates square off again in the primary later this year.

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