The biggest mistake we could make about the Georgia special election

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Significance of Tuesday's special election in Georgia has been inflated by media coverage and political tension
  • Historically, these special elections rarely predict what will happen in the midterms or the next presidential race, Zelizer wrties

Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a New America fellow, is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He's co-host of the "Politics & Polls" podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Many are waiting breathlessly to see the outcome of Tuesday's special election in Georgia. Democrats are hoping that a victory by Jon Ossoff will send a clear signal that President Trump is damaging the GOP and threatening the 2018 midterms; if Ossoff loses, Republicans will certainly boast that it proves the President is not having any serious damaging impact on their electorate.

In spite of the inflated interest derived from incessant media coverage, these predictions are not worth much. An important set of tables by Harry Enten, a senior political writer for fivethirtyeight.com, shows that these special elections rarely predict what will happen next. Historically, special elections aren't revealing indicators of what is going to happen in the upcoming midterms or general elections. Usually, special elections just tell us what's going on in a specific district or what the dynamics are between the candidates in the individual contest.
Julian Zelizer
There are many examples of off-year elections that don't have any larger effect, even if at the time they seem like game changers. Republicans were pleased when Jim Gilmore won the gubernatorial race in Virginia in 1997, though not so happy when the Democrats won five seats in Congress in the 1998 midterms.
Recent decades provide us with many examples of overblown rhetoric around special elections. Democratic victories in 2001 -- like Mark Warner's election as governor in Virginia -- didn't bring much benefit in the 2002 midterms, when the GOP enjoyed a whopping victory. In 2004, Democrats were downright giddy when Republicans lost two seats in special elections. When former state attorney general Ben Chandler defeated Republican Alice Forgy Kerr to fill a House seat in Kentucky vacated by GOP Governor Ernie Fletcher, Democrats celebrated. Robert Matsui, then chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, claimed that Chandler's victory offered a "clear message to the arrogant Republican government in Washington that Americans are ready for change." He and other colleagues predicted that these victories signaled the war in Iraq was taking its toll on the Republican Party and that the Democrats would be able to gain ground in the November election. They were wrong. President George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry with a campaign that revolved around national security, while Republicans retained control of both chambers of Congress.
In 2005 and 2006, Democrats were worried. Still reeling from the outcome of 2004, which left many Democrats disillusioned that the public understood the problems with how the Bush administration was conducting the war against terror, they were devastated when Democrats lost a series of high-profile special elections in Ohio and California as the midterms approached. Many an analyst looked at the elections and speculated that Republicans would be able to weather the storms and retain control of Congress. They were wrong. Democrats nationalized the midterm campaigns around the issues of the war as well as congressional Republicans, and they retook control of the House and Senate in 2006.
After President Obama won in 2008, Democrats felt pretty good in 2009 when some special elections went their way. In the 23rd District of New York, for instance, Bill Owens won a toss-up seat. Chris Van Hollen, then chairman of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, boasted that the election was a "double-blow for national Republicans and their hopes of translating this summer's 'tea party' energy into victories at the ballot box." But they were wrong once again. Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey turned out to be better barometers of what was to come. The 2010 midterms were absolutely devastating for the Obama administration. Republicans retook control of the House and did so with a rightward generation of tea party Republicans who would tie up the White House in perpetual gridlock over the coming years.
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Of course, special elections do still matter in that they can impact the public perception of party leaders, and that can influence what they do in relationship to President Trump. If Democrats are victorious in Georgia, they will be emboldened to continue on Capitol Hill with a tough and aggressive strategy of obstruction. If Republicans win the contest, they are likely to back away from some of their own tougher stances against the administration -- seeing that over time he might bring electoral benefits to the party. Special elections can also offer clues into what is going on with the electorate -- but those clues are limited. Prognosticators who are willing to place big bets as a result of this outcome might want to remember the feeling that many of them had the morning after the election in November.
But the bottom line is that in terms of predicting what will happen in the 2018 midterms, today's contest really means very little. The history of special elections reveals that just because voters go one way in one place at a given time, they might act very differently at a national level in the months ahead.
An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the GOP won the Senate in 2010.