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Where Can Democrats Win?

The special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District on Tuesday night, where Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by just under 4 percentage points, will have plenty of near-term consequences. Republicans are in the midst of trying to pass a health care bill, and Handel’s win should give GOP members of Congress a confidence boost. Turnout was high in Georgia 6 — higher than in the 2014 midterms — and Republicans may take away the lesson that they can hold on to red-leaning districts by enacting their agenda and turning out their base, even in places where President Trump isn’t all that popular. Is that conclusion correct? Perhaps not, given the health care bill’s unpopularity. But GOP congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will take the momentum boost now and deal with the consequences next year.

Meanwhile, Democrats are already engaging in a series of recriminations about why Ossoff faded down the stretch run in Georgia, and whether they should have poured more resources into the special election in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District instead. (In that election, also held on Tuesday, Democrat Archie Parnell lost by a surprisingly thin 3.2 percentage point margin — narrower than Ossoff’s 3.8-point loss.) Because Republicans used Nancy Pelosi to hammer away at Ossoff, some Democrats could also use the Georgia result to challenge Pelosi’s position as Minority Leader. There could furthermore be knock-on effects on Democratic recruiting and fundraising.

But in terms of the implications for midterm elections in 2018, it’s much less clear that Republicans had a good night. For election forecasting purposes, the margins matter: that Ossoff and Parnell came fairly close to beating their opponents yields a different interpretation than if they’d been blown out. And South Carolina is an important data point, just as Georgia was, even if it received a fraction of as much media attention. The earlier special elections in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District and in Montana’s at-large district provide useful information about the political environment also.

Democrats have gone 0-for-4 in these races. From an emotional standpoint, the outcomes have been disheartening for Democrats. From an analytical standpoint, however, they’ve ranged between “not bad” and “pretty great” for Democrats as compared with their results from the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections — consistent with the sorts of results Democrats would expect if they were on track to compete for the House next year.

All of these races have been held in substantially red districts, although how you measure redness is a key question for Democrats in how they formulate their strategy for 2018. As compared to the 2016 presidential result, for example, the Georgia 6 outcome was hugely disappointing for Democrats, while South Carolina 5 was a boffo performance. Last year, Clinton lost to Trump in Georgia 6 by only 1.5 percentage points. Since Clinton beat Trump by 2 points in the popular vote nationwide, that meant it was only 3 to 4 points more Republican than the country as a whole. And yet, Ossoff lost to Handel by 3.8 points, seemingly making no progress at all. By contrast, South Carolina’s 5th district was 21 points more Republican than the country overall in last year’s presidential election, so for Parnell to have come within about 3 points of Republican Ralph Norman counts as a huge improvement for Democrats.

And yet … the results aren’t all that surprising if you zoom out and take a wider view. In 2012, Barack Obama came considerably closer to Mitt Romney in South Carolina 5 than he did in Georgia 6. And Republican incumbents were re-elected to the House by wider margins in Georgia 6 than in South Carolina 5 in both 2014 and 2016. South Carolina 5 has also much more recently elected a Democrat to Congress; John Spratt served there until the 2010 midterms, while Republicans have held Georgia 6 since Newt Gingrich’s win there in 1978.

To some extent, Montana — where Democrat Rob Quist lost to Republican Greg Gianforte by 6 points last month — also fits the South Carolina 5 pattern. It went strongly for Trump in 2016, but less so for Romney in 2012 — and Obama nearly won there in 2008. It has also been reasonably competitive in past Congressional races.1

REPUBLICAN LEAN IN PARTISAN INDEX*
DISTRICT G.O.P. MARGIN IN SPECIAL ELECTION 2016 PRESIDENT 2012 PRESIDENT 2016 HOUSE 2014 HOUSE
Kansas 4 +6.8 +29.3 +29.4 +24.6 +22.6
Montana +6.1 +22.7 +17.6 +8.8 +13.4
Georgia 6 +3.7 +3.6 +27.2 +16.2 +21.2
South Carolina 5 +3.2 +20.6 +15.4 +13.3 +6.8
Average +5.0 +19.1 +22.4 +15.7 +16.0
Which districts are reddest depends on your benchmark

* Result relative to national popular vote, also adjusted for incumbency in the case of U.S. House incumbents.

One lesson for Democrats would therefore seem to be to look at a mix of indicators for the competitiveness and partisanship of a district, rather than focusing on the 2016 presidential result alone. Trump’s popularity will be a key factor, but so could the long term partisan lean of the district and how it has voted for Congress in the past. Local issues, particularly how the new health care bill might affect the district, could also play a role.

Each of the special elections so far have also come with their quirks: For instance, Georgia 6 had a very high turnout and tens of millions of dollars invested by each party, whereas South Carolina 5 had a much lower turnout and very little investment. But for that very reason — because individual races can be determined by flukish and unpredictable circumstances — Democrats would be wise to avoid the mistake they made in 2016, when Clinton campaigned in too narrow a range of states and didn’t properly consider the uncertainty in the outcome. Well-educated Sun Belt districts such as Georgia 6 could be the Democrats’ path back to a majority. But so could places such as South Carolina 5 that had once been more Democratic, or districts in Ohio or Pennsylvania or upstate New York. It’s much too early to know.

The historical constant is that midterm elections have usually yielded a backlash against the president’s party — and the results of the special elections so far suggest that Republicans’ risk is higher than average.

As compared to the 2016 presidential results, Democrats have outperformed their benchmarks by an average of 14 percentage points so far across the four GOP-held districts to have held special elections to date. As compared to the 2012 presidential election, their overperformance is even larger, at almost 18 points. They’ve also outperformed their results from the 2016 and 2014 U.S. House elections by roughly 11 points, after one accounts for the fact that the special elections were open-seat races rather than being held against incumbents.

DEMOCRATIC SWING IN SPECIAL ELECTION RELATIVE TO BENCHMARK*
DISTRICT 2016 PRESIDENT 2012 PRESIDENT 2016 HOUSE 2014 HOUSE
Kansas 4 +22.5 +22.6 +17.8 +15.8
Montana +16.6 +11.5 +2.7 +7.3
Georgia 6 -0.1 +23.5 +12.5 +17.5
South Carolina 5 +17.4 +12.2 +10.1 +3.6
Average +14.1 +17.5 +10.8 +11.1
Democrats continue to substantially outperform their benchmarks

* Result relative to national popular vote, also adjusted for incumbency in the case of congressional incumbents.

How might this translate for Democrats next November, when all 435 seats are up for grabs? The results simultaneously suggest that an impressively wide array of Republican-held seats might be competitive next year — perhaps as many as 60 to 80 — and that Democrats are outright favorites in only a fraction of these, perhaps no more than a dozen. To some extent, this configuration is a result of Republican-led gerrymandering in 2010. Republicans drew a lot of districts where their members are safe under normal conditions, but not in the event of a massive midterm wave.

In order to win a net of 24 seats next year — enough to flip the House — Democrats may therefore need to target dozens of Republican-held seats and see where the chips fall. They can variously attempt anti-Trump, anti-Republican or anti-incumbent messages depending on the district.2

The 2018 midterms will be strange in that a “pretty good” year for Democrats might yield a gain of only 15 seats for the party, whereas a “very good” year — if the political climate is just a few points more Democratic-leaning — could produce a 50-seat swing instead. Because they run the government, Republicans and Trump will have more influence on the macro-level political environment. But Democrats will have at least as much say on the district-level environment based on where they recruit strong candidates instead of giving Republican incumbents a free pass.

In that sense, Tuesday night poses the biggest risk to Democrats if it discourages them from recruiting quality candidates and providing them with enough money to run credible campaigns in districts as diverse as Georgia 6, South Carolina 5 and Montana. And the biggest risk to Republicans will be if they get too caught up in the narrative and ignore that the results in special elections so far indicate a lot of downside risk for the GOP next year.

Footnotes

  1. The Democrats’ competitive result in the Kansas 4 special election is harder to explain, given that the district has been very red for a very long time

  2. From my vantage point, it was somewhat strange that Ossoff didn’t focus all that much on Trump given that Trump is considerably less popular in Georgia 6 than the Republicans’ brand overall is there.

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

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