Braking Down The News

Yes, Special Elections Really Are Signaling A Better-Than-Expected Midterm For Democrats


In your typical midterm election with an unpopular Democratic president, you’d expect Republicans to be flying high. But the evidence is mounting that the national political environment right now actually leans toward Democrats

On Tuesday, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro in a special election for New York’s swingy 19th Congressional District by 2 percentage points, 51 percent to 49 percent.1 At the same time, Republican Joe Sempolinski defeated Democrat Max Della Pia by a closer-than-expected margin of 7 points in the special election for New York’s solid-red 23rd District. On their own, these elections could be dismissed as flukes, chalked up to local factors or particularly strong or weak candidates. But given how these two elections are part of a larger pattern of good results for Democrats over the last two months, they suddenly look a lot more like signal than noise.

We at FiveThirtyEight often track the results of special elections (i.e., elections that occur at unusual times because an office unexpectedly becomes vacant) because of the hints they provide to the national mood. When a party consistently does well in special elections — defined not by winning or losing, but by outperforming a state or district’s baseline partisanship — it’s often a sign that the national political environment favors that party, and is therefore a good omen for that party in the upcoming regular general election.

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Up until mid-June, special elections for the U.S. House during the Biden presidency were pointing to a national political environment that was neutral or a little bit Republican-leaning. On average, Republicans did 2 points better in those elections than you’d expect based on the districts’ FiveThirtyEight partisan leans.2 That all changed, though, starting in late June — immediately after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, overturning the constitutional right to abortion. There have been four first-past-the-post special House elections since that decision, and Democrats have outperformed their expected margins in those elections by an average of 9 points.

Since Dobbs, Democrats have done well in special elections

How the final vote-share margins in federal special elections in the 2022 cycle compare with the seats’ FiveThirtyEight partisan leans, as of 11:45 a.m. on Aug. 24, 2022

DateSeatPartisan LeanVote MarginMargin Swing
March 20, 2021Louisiana 2nd*D+51D+66D+15
March 20, 2021Louisiana 5th*R+31R+45R+13
May 1, 2021Texas 6th*R+11R+25R+14
June 1, 2021New Mexico 1stD+18D+25D+7
Nov. 2, 2021Ohio 11thD+57D+58EVEN
Nov. 2, 2021Ohio 15thR+19R+17D+2
Jan. 11, 2022Florida 20thD+53D+60D+7
June 7, 2022California 22ndR+11R+24R+14
June 14, 2022Texas 34th*D+5R+5R+10
Pre-Dobbs averageD+12D+10R+2
June 28, 2022Nebraska 1stR+17R+5D+12
Aug. 9, 2022Minnesota 1stR+15R+4D+11
Aug. 23, 2022New York 19thR+4D+2D+6
Aug. 23, 2022New York 23rdR+15R+7D+9
Post-Dobbs averageR+13R+3D+9

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

*Top-two primaries: Vote margin is the total vote share of all Democratic candidates combined minus the total vote share of all Republican candidates combined.

The Aug. 16 special election in Alaska is excluded because it was a ranked-choice election and we don’t have the final results.

Source: State election offices, ABC News

(There is one data point missing from this analysis, however: the ranked-choice special election in Alaska’s at-large district. Currently, Republicans have 21 percentage points more first-place votes than Democrats in that race, despite Alaska’s R+15 partisan lean. But it’s not clear how meaningful that is, given the unusual dynamics at play in a ranked-choice election. In fact, when the ranked-choice votes are tabulated on Aug. 31, it’s quite possible that the Democratic candidate will receive more votes than the last Republican standing — which would be an even bigger upset than Ryan’s win. We’ll just have to wait and see.)

The pattern of Democratic overperformance started with the June 28 special election in Nebraska’s 1st District. No one expected this district with an R+17 partisan lean to be competitive, but it was a nailbiter: Republicans won by just 5 points. Then, on Aug. 9, Democrats came even closer (within 4 points) in a similarly red district, Minnesota’s 1st (partisan lean R+15). This was still just two data points, though. But then, of course, came Tuesday’s special elections in New York. In the 19th District, Democrats’ winning margin was 6 points better than the district’s R+4 partisan lean, and in the 23rd District, it was 9 points better. 

The bottom line is these two data points put to rest any notion that the Nebraska and Minnesota results were a fluke; special-election results are clearly indicating that the political winds are now at Democrats’ backs. And it’s not just special-election results. Democrats and their allies have also done well in other, non-special elections since Dobbs. The results of Washington’s top-two primaries (which, unusually, pit Democrats and Republicans against each other and have historically done a good job predicting the November elections) were not consistent with past “red wave” midterm elections. And a Kansas ballot measure that would have clarified that the state constitution does not protect abortion rights failed by a large, 18-point margin despite the state’s conservative leanings.

Moreover, one of the best indicators we have of the national environment in a midterm year has also gotten better for Democrats since Dobbs — although it is currently showing more of a neutral political environment than a Democratic-leaning one. On the day of the Dobbs decision, Republicans led polls of the generic congressional ballot, or polls that ask Americans which party they plan to support for Congress, by 2.3 points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average. But since then, Democrats have gained 2.7 points, and on Wednesday,3 they hold a small lead in these polls.

This is unusual, given that the polls usually get worse, not better, for the president’s party as a midterm election draws closer. That could be a sign that 2022 could be the rare midterm that bucks the usual trend of the president’s party getting a “shellacking.” And if so, Democrats may have the Supreme Court to thank. Correlation isn’t causation, but given the precise timing (Republicans overperformed in special elections on June 7 and June 14, then Democrats started their hot streak on June 28), it seems quite likely that the Dobbs decision is responsible for the shift in the political environment. In other words, it could be akin to other major news events that turned midterm elections on their heads: former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, and the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terror in 2002.

It’s also worth noting there has been other good news for Democrats in recent weeks: They passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a major climate, health-care and tax bill. Gas prices have significantly declined, potentially weakening the potency of Republican attacks on inflation. And President Biden’s approval rating has slowly been ticking back up. All these things could have contributed to Democrats’ special-election success too.

But none of this is a guarantee of Democratic success in the midterms. As quickly as those developments broke, others — perhaps better for Republicans — can replace them. The polls could still move away from Democrats, in keeping with historical precedent. Of course, events thus far have suggested we aren’t in a typical midterm situation; for instance, maybe the switch from registered-voter polls to likely-voter polls won’t benefit Republicans as much as expected because Democrats are so fired up. But there are still two and a half months until Election Day. And while it’s hard to deny that Democrats have the momentum right now, it’s an open question of whether they can sustain it.

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