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Pundits Pompously Pontificate – but Election Data Says Democrats Still Alive and Kicking

Two elections were held on Tuesday in wildly disparate parts of the United States. And while polling data shows Obama’s approval ratings inevitably dipping off their previously lofty heights, Democrats in Iowa and California aren’t yet suffering at the ballot box. As Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling has blogged, most of the drop in Obama’s approval ratings has come from people who never voted for him to begin with. But let’s look at the one thing in the world that’s sexier to FiveThirtyEight readers than polling data – real live election results. Click on “There’s more” to see what happened on Tuesday in Iowa and California’s special elections.

The California election was for California’s 10th Congressional District, represented by Ellen Tauscher until her resignation to serve under Hilary Clinton in the State Department. An ancestor of this district had been represented by a right-wing Republican, Bill Baker, who once pointed at a bunch of junior high school students in a gallery above the California State Legislature’s chamber and referred to them as abortion survivors. But demographic trends in California have not been kind to Republicans and the lines of this district have also been changed by redistricting. It’s in the far suburban reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area and includes Lawrence Livermore National Labs where an awful lot of design and testing work for nuclear weapons has historically been done (along with lots of civilian research that is of unambiguous benefit to the population). The district comes far closer to resembling the rest of the United States than such bastions of the left as San Francisco or Berkeley, albeit it is more affluent and educated than the country as a whole.

The McCain campaign in 2008 wrote off California as a hopeless cause (intelligently in my view) and didn’t spend any money there. Of course neither did the Obama campaign, which vacuumed donations and volunteers out of California and blew them into other parts of the country where they were more needed. Obama won the 10th District over McCain 65% – 33%. In the same 2008 election, the veteran Tauscher – a fairly conservative Dem who was a member of both the Blue Dogs and the New Dems – won over her Republican opponent 65% – 31% with 4% going to a lefty Peace and Freedom party candidate.

In elections where there are only two candidates – one Dem and one Rep — on the ballot and you’re a Republican and you happen to hate the Republican candidate, then your only options are to stay home or hold your nose and vote for the Democrat. By way of contrast special elections of the type held in California are uniquely well-suited to monitor partisan identification. That’s because anyone who’s a registered voter can vote for any of the candidates, it’s a so called jungle primary. All the Democrats and all the Republicans as well as all minor party candidates run against each other on one open ballot. If one candidate receives 50% + 1 of the total votes cast (i.e. a majority) then that person is elected to Congress. If no one receives a majority, then the top candidate from each party proceeds to the general election. That means – as happened on Tuesday – that someone who got 20% of the vote may not go to the general election while somebody who got 1% (if s/he’s from a minor party) does go on to the general election. It also means that if you’re a Republican and you hate the leading Republican candidate, no big deal, you can just vote for another one without worrying about throwing your vote away. That’s because you know that it’s very likely that there will be a runoff between the top candidate from each party anyway. So you have a license to vote your conscience in the jungle primary knowing you can grit your teeth, do your duty, and vote for the candidate of your party who you don’t like so much when it’s absolutely essential. In this primary there were six Republican candidates on the ballot and five Democrats. The same reasoning of course applies to Democrats, so these open primaries are great indicators of partisan strength. So what happened on Tuesday? Tote up all five Democratic candidates and you get 65%, exactly the same as Obama and the previous incumbent Tauscher received in 2008. Tote up the six Republicans and you get 34%. Most of the remaining 1% went to lefty (i.e. Green & Peace and Freedom party) candidates. In other words the needle essentially didn’t budge at all since the 2008 presidential election.

What about Iowa? Iowa’s 90th State House District is the home of Maharishi University where devotees of meditation go to study, meditate and presumably not eat too much Iowa beef. But it’s also actually a district whose partisan voter registration is within a percentage point of Iowa’s as a whole. The Democratic incumbent had left to take a job in the Governor’s administration as an agricultural czar. He had won his last two elections (in 2006 & 2008) unopposed and had won fairly easily in 2004. But in his first election in 2002 when he was a non-incumbent, his victory margin was by the fat total of 55 votes out of 10,475 cast. Large amounts of money (a few hundred thousand dollars) were spent in this obscure contest as Iowa Republicans strove mightily to break the momentum that Democrats have enjoyed over the last few cycles in Iowa. The recent legalization of gay marriage in Iowa by the state’s Supreme Court has led Iowa Republicans to try to force a debate in the legislature to overturn the ruling. Christian right groups engaged in significant independent expenditures designed to weaken the Democrat. Despite all that, on Tuesday in the first open seat election in the district since 2002, Democrats essentially doubled their winning margin. The Democrat managed to squeak by with a 107 vote margin out of 8,046 votes cast. With the previous incumbent the Democrat’s secret weapon was that he was from the more rural Republican county in the district, so he undercut the Republican base vote. This time around the Democrats got even sneakier. They managed to recruit as their candidate a driver’s ed teacher who had won teaching awards while working for 40+ years and taught almost everyone imaginable how to drive. This is not a mass transit heavy district. The Republican percentage was up in the less populated counties in the district compared to 2002, but the driver’s ed teacher’s old students came through for him and the Democratic percentage was up by ten points from the 2002 percentage in his county, the most populous in the district. Again the dial barely moved.

It’s certainly possible that Obama will antagonize the Democratic base by not advocating strongly enough for a public option in his health care proposals. It’s also possible that the drum beat of Republican attacks on everything associated with Obama and the Democrats will continue to drive down Democratic support among Independents. The pendulum tends to swing over time. But for now – looking at actual elections, not polls which can be spun any which way – there’s no hard empirical evidence of significant changes in the electorate’s behavior since November of 2008.