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Six Months After Midterm Disaster, Hopeful Signs for Democrats

Here’s what I wrote two weeks ago about the special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District, which was won by the Democrat Kathy Hochul Tuesday night:

[If] Ms. Hochul can get her vote up into the mid-to-high 40s — as the Democratic candidates did in 2006 and 2008 while facing only one viable opponent instead of two — then the Democrats will be entitled to a round of beer; it will be one small sign (though just one) that the electoral environment has moved toward what it was in stronger Democratic years.

Ms. Hochul, with most of the vote counted, has 48 percent of the total, so she has met this threshold. The rest of the vote was split among the Republican, Jane Corwin, with 42 percent, the the Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, with 9 percent, and the Green Party’s Ian Murphy, with 1 percent.

Suppose that Mr. Davis and Mr. Murphy were not running, and that this were a true two-way race between Ms. Hochul and Ms. Corwin. If Ms. Corwin had won all of Mr. Davis’s vote (and Ms. Hochul won all of Mr. Murphy’s vote), she would have won 51-49.

That would still qualify as a bad night for the Republicans, however. Based on the way that the district votes in presidential elections, it is 6 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. That means, roughly speaking, that in a neutral political environment with average candidates, Ms. Corwin would have won 56 percent of the vote and Ms. Hochul 44 percent — a 12-point victory. A 2-point win instead, therefore, would have spoken to a relatively poor political environment for the Republicans.

Nor is it likely that Ms. Corwin would in fact have won all of Mr. Davis’s votes. He ran in the district as a Democrat in 2006, and polls suggested that his voters leaned Republican by roughly a 2-1 margin, but not more than that. If you had split his vote 2-1 in favor of Ms. Corwin, the results would have been Ms. Hochul 51 percent, and Ms. Corwin 48 percent.

So Republicans can’t really pin the blame for this result on Mr. Davis. They do, however, have a couple of more credible arguments.

First, any one special election probably does not have all that much predictive power. Once there are several special elections, they may begin to mean something, but one taken in isolation is a rather fuzzy indicator.

Second, Ms. Corwin had very high unfavorable ratings and tried a crass political stunt that backfired, so she was probably a below-average candidate.

Still, a seat that would ordinarily be won by Republicans by about 12 points, but was instead won by the Democrats by 6 points, is a pretty big deviation from the norm. Odds are, like in the special election in Massachusetts last year, that some part of this had to do with factors that could carry over to the national level, while some other part had to do with circumstances specific to the district.

There is strong circumstantial evidence from the Siena poll, which came reasonably close to the actual outcome, that one of the more broadly applicable factors was Ms. Corwin’s association with Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, which Ms. Hochul criticized for its changes to Medicare.

One can also take a more post-modern view toward special elections, like the one advocated by The Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein: special elections matter to the extent that people think they matter. We may get a better indication of how much Republicans think this one matters based on the way they vote when Mr. Ryan’s budget comes to a vote in the Senate, possibly later this week.

Republicans could try to toe the party line — there are solid reasons, both from a strategic standpoint, and from a morale standpoint, for them to do so. But that doesn’t necessarily make the problem go away: Democrats are all but certain to make a major issue of Medicare and Mr. Ryan’s budget in every competitive Congressional election next year.

Looking at the bigger picture, my view is that the two biggest wild cards so far this year have both broken in favor of the Democrats: one being the risk the Republicans took by voting almost unanimously for Mr. Ryan’s budget, and the other being the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even in an election that mostly comes down to the economy — President Obama and the Democrats, make no mistake, remain extremely vulnerable there — these could be important factors at the margins. Pick up an extra 1 percent of the vote here, an extra 2 percent of the vote there, and your strategy starts to look a lot more robust: maybe O.K.-but-not-good economic growth is enough to get the Democrats elected, in addition to good-but-not-great growth.

Coupled with what is arguably a troubling start for the Republicans in the presidential campaign — a couple of electable candidates aren’t running, while there are signs now that Sarah Palin may — the past six months have played out in a way that is toward the lower end of what the G.O.P. might reasonably have expected in November 2010.

That doesn’t mean there are any guarantees. Far from it: I don’t know that Mr. Obama is much more likely than a 2-to-1 favorite to retain the White House, nor that Democrats better than even money to take back the House. But both sets of odds have improved, in my view, from where I would have pegged them a few months ago.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the Green Party candidate for New York’s 26th Congressional District. His name is Ian Murphy, not Miller.

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