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The 2017 Elections Suggest Incumbency Won’t Save Republicans In 2018

Tuesday was a great night for Democrats. Their candidate for governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, ran away with a 54 percent to 45 percent win. The party gained complete control of two state governments, New Jersey and Washington. But perhaps most significantly, the party picked up at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, with recounts likely in four districts that will determine control of the chamber.

True, it may seem like possibly, maybe flipping one state legislative chamber doesn’t stack up to those other accomplishments. But more than their implications for governance of Virginia, Tuesday night’s legislative results should cheer Democrats because of what they represent: the best bellwether to date of the 2018 congressional elections.

Ahead of Tuesday, liberals were already rightly bullish about their midterm prospects because of the clear pattern of Democratic overachievement in special elections for congressional and state legislative seats in 2017. Historically, special-election results, in the aggregate, have been a pretty good omen for how a party will do in the following midterms, but it’s best not to rely too heavily on such a small sample of fickle data points (these elections are, by definition, special). And now with Tuesday’s 100 elections for the Virginia House of Delegates and 40 elections for the New Jersey state Senate, we have more than twice as much legislative-election data as we did coming into the week.1

As FiveThirtyEight contributor David Wasserman has pointed out, these regularly scheduled elections are better approximations of 2018’s U.S. House elections. Unlike special elections, in which unpredictable turnout levels can favor one party and skew the results, Virginia’s and New Jersey’s elections occurred concurrently with those states’ gubernatorial elections (36 states will select a governor in 2018), a pairing that typically leads to more predictable turnout. Perhaps most importantly, these legislative elections were predominantly2 not open-seat races, as vacancy-triggered special elections obviously are. Tuesday was our first chance to see whether Democrats could still beat expectations when going up against the powerful force of incumbency advantage.3

The answer — as we’d expect with actual incumbents on the ballot — is that Democrats did well on Tuesday but didn’t outperform expectations to the degree they have in special elections this year. On average, the party’s candidates for Virginia House of Delegates and New Jersey state Senate won by margins that were 3 percentage points better than their district’s partisan lean.4

How Democrats did in the Virginia House of Delegates

Democratic performance in districts relative to each district’s partisan lean

VOTE SHARE
DISTRICT DEM. REP. DEM. MARGIN IN 2017 ELECTION PARTISAN LEAN DIFF
20th 43% 55% -12 -22 +10
1st 24 76 -52 -61 +9
86th 69 31 +38 +29 +9
2nd 63 37 +26 +18 +8
3rd 22 78 -56 -64 +8
25th 42 58 -16 -24 +8
34th 61 39 +22 +14 +8
42nd 62 38 +24 +16 +8
12th 54 46 +8 +1 +7
38th 74 26 +48 +41 +7
72nd 53 47 +6 -1 +7
27th 50 50 0 -6 +6
33rd 45 55 -10 -16 +6
85th 51 49 +2 -3 +5
93rd 60 40 +20 +15 +5
17th 39 61 -22 -26 +4
21st 53 47 +6 +2 +4
62nd 48 52 -4 -8 +4
81st 41 59 -18 -22 +4
87th 62 38 +24 +20 +4
9th 30 70 -40 -43 +3
10th 52 48 +4 +1 +3
28th 50 50 0 -3 +3
32nd 59 41 +18 +15 +3
49th 81 19 +62 +59 +3
55th 40 60 -20 -23 +3
8th 36 64 -28 -30 +2
31st 54 45 +9 +7 +2
56th 40 60 -20 -22 +2
84th 48 52 -4 -6 +2
26th 45 55 -10 -11 +1
29th 36 64 -28 -29 +1
51st 53 47 +6 +5 +1
59th 34 61 -27 -28 +1
65th 36 64 -28 -29 +1
82nd 41 59 -18 -19 +1
91st 44 56 -12 -13 +1
96th 43 57 -14 -15 +1
23rd 34 66 -32 -32 0
30th 38 62 -24 -24 0
64th 38 62 -24 -24 0
73rd 51 49 +2 +2 0
88th 37 53 -16 -16 0
98th 35 65 -30 -30 0
18th 34 61 -27 -26 -1
7th 34 66 -32 -30 -2
50th 54 46 +8 +10 -2
66th 36 64 -28 -26 -2
68th 50 50 +1 +3 -2
97th 28 72 -44 -42 -2
13th 54 46 +8 +11 -3
83rd 44 56 -12 -9 -3
94th 49 49 0 +3 -3
54th 42 58 -16 -12 -4
67th 58 42 +16 +20 -4
40th 50 50 0 +5 -5
99th 38 62 -24 -19 -5
58th 38 62 -24 -18 -6
100th 47 53 -6 +2 -8
60th 38 62 -24 -14 -10

Only races that pitted one Democrat against one Republican are included. 2017 election results are unofficial and as of 2 a.m. Eastern on Nov. 8.
A district’s “partisan lean” is the average difference between how the district voted and how the country voted overall in the last two presidential elections, with 2016 weighted 75 percent and 2012 weighted 25 percent.

Sources: Associated Press, Daily Kos Elections

How Democrats did in the New Jersey state Senate

Democratic performance in districts relative to each district’s partisan lean

VOTE SHARE
DISTRICT DEM. REP. DEM. MARGIN IN 2017 ELECTION PARTISAN LEAN DIFF
1st 65% 34% +31 -8 +39
33rd 88 12 +76 +54 +22
3rd 59 41 +18 -2 +20
32nd 80 20 +60 +40 +20
27th 69 31 +38 +22 +16
36th 66 34 +32 +17 +15
31st 84 16 +68 +55 +13
30th 40 60 -20 -32 +12
37th 75 25 +50 +38 +12
18th 65 35 +30 +19 +11
20th 83 17 +66 +55 +11
34th 85 15 +70 +60 +10
6th 69 31 +38 +29 +9
29th 87 11 +76 +68 +8
7th 66 34 +32 +25 +7
24th 39 61 -22 -29 +7
38th 57 43 +14 +7 +7
13th 45 55 -10 -15 +5
10th 37 63 -26 -29 +3
22nd 67 33 +34 +31 +3
35th 79 21 +58 +55 +3
5th 65 34 +31 +29 +2
14th 56 44 +12 +10 +2
11th 53 47 +6 +5 +1
12th 41 57 -16 -17 +1
15th 74 26 +48 +47 +1
39th 46 53 -7 -8 +1
17th 71 29 +42 +42 0
25th 48 52 -4 -4 0
26th 43 57 -14 -13 -1
9th 35 65 -30 -27 -3
40th 43 57 -14 -11 -3
23rd 41 59 -18 -14 -4
8th 48 52 -4 +1 -5
21st 45 55 -10 +3 -13
16th 48 52 -4 +10 -14
2nd 46 54 -8 +11 -19

Only races that pitted one Democrat against one Republican are included. 2017 data are unofficial results as of 2 a.m. Eastern on Nov. 8.

Sources: Associated Press, Daily Kos Elections

Unsurprisingly, incumbency was a major factor in how Democrats fared. In open seats and districts with Democratic incumbents, the party outperformed the partisan lean by a healthy amount — although not by the same 14 points by which they beat the partisan lean in special state legislative elections the last time we examined this question.5 But in districts with Republican incumbents, Democrats basically matched the district’s partisan lean.

A blue night

Average Democratic performance relative to each district’s partisan lean, by incumbency status

TYPE OF RACE VIRGINIA HOUSE OF DELEGATES NEW JERSEY STATE SENATE BOTH
Open seats +5 +8 +6
Seats with Democratic incumbents +6 +10 +9
Seats with Republican incumbents +1 -1 0
All seats +2 +5 +3

Only races that pitted one Democrat against one Republican are included. Results are unofficial and as of 2 a.m. Eastern on Nov. 8.

Sources: Associated Press, Daily Kos Elections

In Virginia specifically, the main reason that Democrats were able to win so many House of Delegates races on Tuesday was that so many Republicans were occupying blue seats. Going by our partisan lean metric, 50 House of Delegates seats are naturally Republican-leaning and 50 are naturally Democratic-leaning; going into Tuesday, Republicans held all 50 of the former and 16 of the latter. If the current leader wins in every race, though, Republicans would hold only two Democratic-leaning seats in the next House of Delegates (Democrats would also hold two Republican-leaning ones). Put another way, Tuesday was a corrective election.6

Basically, the national environment (as expressed by the generic ballot and other indicators) was friendly enough to Democrats that it neutralized Republicans’ incumbency advantage on Tuesday. If this holds in 2018, that may be enough to put the U.S. House in play. And, of course, not all seats Republicans will be defending will feature incumbents, further brightening the outlook for Democrats. The more Republicans continue to retire from Congress, the clearer the Democrats’ path to a House majority will become.

Footnotes

  1. I’m disregarding the 40 elections for New Jersey General Assembly, the state’s lower chamber, that were also held on Tuesday. General Assembly districts elect two legislators each, and all candidates in the district run in the same race; the top two vote-getters are elected. This irregular arrangement makes Assembly races too different from typical elections to make a credible comparison.

  2. 130 out of 140.

  3. Which Republicans possessed in 74 of Tuesday’s 140 legislative campaigns and will likely possess in more than 200 of 2018’s 435 U.S. House races.

  4. A district’s “partisan lean” is the average difference between how the district voted and how the country voted overall in the last two presidential elections, with the 2016 results weighted 75 percent and the 2012 results weighted 25 percent. As always, thanks to Daily Kos Elections for calculating the presidential results by legislative district.

  5. This suggests that Democrats owe just as much of their special-election dominance to favorable turnout patterns as to not facing incumbents.

  6. Because we know you’re wondering: In the U.S. House, Republicans occupy 14 seats with a Democratic partisan lean.

Nathaniel Rakich is a politics and baseball writer whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the Boston Globe.

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