Skip to main content
ABC News
What’s The Right Way To Interpret The Pennsylvania Special Election?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): HEYO! When this chat publishes, we’ll be about 36 hours removed from the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District (apparently won by Democrat Conor Lamb). That’s been more than enough time for narratives and lessons and takeaways to take hold. I’ve chosen what seem to be the most ubiquitous or interesting ones, and we’re going to play a game of buy/sell/hold with PA 18 🔥 takes.

Buy = “I mostly agree with that.”

Sell = “I mostly disagree with that.”

Hold = ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

You all good to go?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Yeah.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yes.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Sure.

micah: OK, Take No. 1, from Vox: The Pennsylvania special election shows the 2018 House battleground is enormous — by one calculation, more than 110 seats could theoretically be in play.

Buy, sell or hold?

natesilver: Buy.

perry: Hold. I could have said “buy,” though — the range of seats that Democrats could win is fairly broad.

clare.malone: I’m a hold on this because I think not every district that President Trump won by 20 points or more (as he did Pennsylvania’s 18th District) is quite the same, and I don’t think Democrats can find a plausible candidate for every one of them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t or won’t make a play for them.

natesilver: I would point out that it feels like buy/sell/hold is the wrong idiom here, but Micah might get mad if I said that. I think the Vox take is right, though. It’s a very, very broad playing field, and both Democrats and Republicans would be dumb as hell to ignore any of those ~110 seats.

micah: Yeah, I’ve seen this take bleed a bit into more like, “Democrats can win something on the order of 110 seats,” and that seems way out there. But if we stick to “in play,” then I’m on board.

clare.malone: Right. It’s really easily misconstrued.

micah: Yeah.

OK, Take No. 2, from Huffington Post: GOP blames “lackluster” candidate and his “porn stache” for Pennsylvania setback

(And yes, I just wanted to get “porn stache” into the chat.)

To summarize this one a bit — maybe we can’t read that much into the Pennsylvania 18 result because the GOP candidate was bad.

clare.malone: First off, LOL.

But crass wording aside, there was something of a Kennedy/Nixon thing going on here with the contrast of young, dewy Lamb to older, mustachioed Rick Saccone. That’s not to say it was a big factor, though.

So, sell, but I see what they’re going for.

“They” being Republicans.


perry: Sell. Saccone was a fairly standard Republican on positions. He won a primary, has been a state senator, didn’t have a big scandal break during the general election. In other words, he was no Roy Moore. Or Christine O’Donnell.

clare.malone: Yeah the blame-it-on-Saccone spin is more a testament to how well Lamb played the role he needed to play in that district.

natesilver: It’s not totally wrong to say the candidates played a role, but that’s missing the forest for the trees. The national environment does most of the work here. Democrats are outperforming the districts’ partisan baselines by an average of 16 or 17 points in special elections for the U.S. House and Senate so far. They did so by 22 points in Pennsylvania’s 18th. So maybe the candidates’ individual qualities got Lamb over the top, but it was the national environment that created the opportunity.

Also, Lamb and Saccone are well within the normal range of goodness/badness as candidates. There will be plenty of candidates like them on the ballot in November 2018. They’re not the second coming of Jesus Christ and Roy Moore, respectively.

micah: So I guess it’s fair to say this result shows the importance of the national environment and candidate quality — but that order (environment first) is important.

Take No. 3, from The Guardian: Why it’s time for Democrats to ditch Nancy Pelosi.

Lamb seems to have won, and he distanced himself from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

clare.malone: Buy.

I generally think there’s a solid argument for Democrats to do a little bit of a leadership purge.

natesilver: Hold.

clare.malone: It’s a take I agree with separate from this election, though. It’s not just Tuesday’s result.

natesilver: I mean, I think if we’re being really Machiavellian, Democrats would probably up their chances of taking the House majority in 2018 if they ditched Pelosi. But it’s like the eighth-most-important factor.

perry: Sell. The polling in this district found that most people neither knew nor cared about the anti-Pelosi pledge. There is a fine argument that Democrats need new leaders, but I don’t think this race tells much.

natesilver: Republicans can just demonize Hillary Clinton instead.

micah: That is sooooo true.

Can and will.

clare.malone: And she’s happily providing new tape for them:

perry: I would say, though, that — regardless of whether this made a difference or not in the 18th District — if 20 Democrats running in key races make the kind of anti-Pelosi pledge that Lamb did, then that becomes an issue for her.

If Democrats win the House majority in 2018 and have, say, 230 seats, but 15 people have pledged not to vote for Pelosi for speaker, that’s significant. And if they don’t win the majority, I think she will be out.

micah: Speaking of …

Take No. 4, from the NTK Network: Bad night for Pelosi, good night for Moulton and Biden.

That’s Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom campaigned for Lamb and both of whom are rumored to be potential presidential candidates in 2020.

clare.malone: It’s a good way to shoehorn in other white, male candidates, who Democrats are hoping will swing suburban Republican-leaning voters.

natesilver: Hold. The arguments about whether Democrats need progressives who excite the base or moderates who woo swing voters are pretty overdone in both directions — and it depends a lot on the districts.

clare.malone: I’ll buy.

perry: Buy. I don’t think anyone cares about Moulton. Even if Pelosi didn’t matter to voters, it’s a bad sign for her that Lamb won in a high-profile race while distancing himself from his party’s leader in the House. Every high-profile surrogate (Barack Obama, Biden, Bill Clinton) campaigns for some people who win and some who lose. But I think Biden is being brought into more conservative-leaning areas. (He appeared with Montana Sen. Jon Tester recently.) If some of those candidates win, and he is the top surrogate, that does help Biden with the case that he can appeal to Obama-Trump voters.

clare.malone: I mean, right, Biden’s whole presidential pitch is gonna be just that: I’ll win back the fabled “working-class white voter.”

micah: Take No. 5, from Greg Sargent at The Washington Post: The Trump/GOP agenda may be a big albatross for Republicans.

perry: Sell. I don’t think the GOP policy agenda is mattering that much. The tax cut doesn’t seem to be helping the GOP in these special elections, but I think that’s different from saying it’s hurting the party. Trump is a big albatross himself, but I’m not sure it’s the policy stuff.

Like, the tariffs didn’t help Saccone is my guess. I’m not sure they hurt him, though.

natesilver: I’m a buy.

I think health care hurts Republicans, and taxes are probably a wash.

clare.malone: Hmmm. I guess buy? The economy is good, so the Democrats would be left with running on health care and Trump’s ineffectuality.

natesilver: And tariffs were probably a wash in this district but are hurtful overall.

micah: So I’m gonna fold another take into this one — a sub-take, from ThinkProgress: Pennsylvania voters say the GOP’s health care antics cost Saccone their vote.

It sounds like Nate is buying that.

I might be a weak sell on this — I think it’s Trump more than his agenda, per se.

natesilver: That’s not what the question asked, though.

It didn’t ask whether Trump was more important — it asked whether the Republican agenda is harming the GOP.

perry: Do I think congressional Republicans would have been better off overall with either a popular Obamacare replacement plan or just not doing the repeal? Yes. I think Nate is correct about this.

micah: Well, I guess I’m quibbling with the “big” in “big albatross.”

perry: The gap between “Trump alone” and “Trump and the GOP’s agenda” is perhaps not the biggest distinction. I’m not sure it totally makes sense.

If Trump was tweeting about a health care plan people liked, that would be different than what he is tweeting about now.

micah: That’s a good point.

Trump sorta is the Trump/GOP agenda, and vice versa.

natesilver: It’s worth pointing out that Trump’s approval rating declined by several points while health care was being debated.

I’m not sure that the rest of the stuff matters, but I think health care moves the needle a bit.

clare.malone: What happens if the economy tanks in the next eight months?

Does that mean a sure Democratic wave?

micah: The GOP ceases to exist.

clare.malone: Right. The GOP is basically basing their campaign on the good economy and the promises of the tax bill.

micah: Seriously, though, the GOP is in really bad shape with a pretty-good-to-great economy. If that went south, they’d be toast.

Though maybe there are diminishing returns for Democrats. Republicans can do only so bad.

natesilver: #Actually, Micah, there might be accelerating returns for Democrats because of the way that districts are structured.

There’s a huge glut of (mostly gerrymandered) districts that are somewhere between like 10 and 20 points more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole. So if the wave gets really big and Democrats begin to tap into those, their gains just get larger and larger.

micah: OK, last one, Take No. 6, from CNN: “Donald Trump can’t save you.”

Buy, sell or hold?

perry: Buy. Trump is not going to help a lot of Republicans win key races in close states/districts. I suspect he will be like Obama in 2014: Candidates in close races may want to duck association with him. Although maybe in Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia — the big Senate races in fairly red states — he might help.

clare.malone: I’ll second that buy.

natesilver: Buy — except the premise is backward. Who’s saying that Trump can save Republicans? He’s the main reason they’re in so much trouble this year in the first place.

micah: I mean, I buy this too as it’s meant. But he could save Republicans somewhat, right? If he stopped doing a lot of Trump-y things.

natesilver: Yeah by staying off Twitter and going golfing for the rest of the year.

clare.malone: “Fox & Friends” is saying that Trump saves Republicans, to be clear.

They were saying this morning that Trump’s trip to Pennsylvania actually saved Saccone from a more embarrassing loss.


micah: Wait a sec!

natesilver: IT’S SO FUCKING DUMB.


micah: You have caps lock on, I think.

natesilver: I’ve seen multiple people making claims that “Lamb was up 6 points in the polls until Trump came in.” This is backwards in like two ways.

First, Lamb was leading by 6 points in only one poll, from Monmouth. Not “the polls”.

He was up by 2 points in the polling average, and the final result is going to come very, very close to that.

If you think the polls were off in this race, you’re a fucking idiot, full stop.

The same would have been true if Saccone had won by 1 point or something also.

micah: Is rant over?

natesilver: Second, the Monmouth poll was actually conducted AFTER TRUMP VISITED, or at least partially after it.

The polls BEFORE Trump visited showed a TIE, on average.

Then the Monmouth poll came out AFTERWARD.

micah: Is rant over?

natesilver: If anything, the Monmouth poll suggested that Trump made matters worse for Saccone, although it did overshoot the mark a bit.

I’m sorry to rant about this, I’m just really, really tired of people substituting saying “the polls” when they really mean “idiotic media narratives based on cherry-picked misinterpretations of the polls.”

Even on CNN last night, there was this notion that Lamb was a big favorite based on the polls. That’s absolutely false. He was a modest favorite, at best. It shows that people have learned nothing since 2016.

micah: Is rant over?

natesilver: It’s going to continue for the next three years, Micah.

micah: lol

Wait, though, on the podcast, Nate, you said something along the lines of, “We know Democratic turnout is going to be good in 2018. Republicans should be looking for ways to increase turnout among their base.”

Can’t Trump help do that?

natesilver: Maybe. I mean, it would certainly be valuable for Republicans to have high turnout among their base — they’re going to need it because the Democratic base’s turnout is almost surely going to be high.

But is Trump actually helping with that?

The base is not that enthused, at least not in a way that’s translating to them turning out in the elections. Trump riles up the Democratic base and turns off moderates.

clare.malone: To the point above, I don’t think you could really win the midterm with just Trump’s base, no matter how energized it is, right?

You would still need to build a GOP coalition to counterbalance the Democratic enthusiasm.

micah: That’s a really good point. It’s likely true that as long as Democrats are motivated, Trump’s base is not enough.

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.