The supposed smart take from the special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is that Republican Dan Bishop underperformed compared to President Donald Trump’s 2016 performance in the district. Bishop won by 2 points while Trump won by 12 points, which is supposed to indicate that the national political environment still leans Democratic.
And while I am a fan of judging special election results by seeing how closely they match the presidential baseline in the district, I’m also a fan of not looking too closely at any one special election. Any one special election result can be a fluke because of district specific factors. I’d rather examine multiple specials.
When we do that, we see the results of the special elections that have taken place after the 2018 midterms – when Democrats took back the House – aren’t anywhere near as good for Democrats as those that occurred in the time period after Trump’s election in 2016 and the midterms.
Last night, for example, there was another less spoken about special election in North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district. Republican Greg Murphy won by 24 points. That was a district in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 24 points too. In other words, there was no Democratic overperformance (or Republican underperformance) in that race versus the 2016 baseline.
Earlier this year, there was a special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District. This special election result looked a lot like what happened in North Carolina’s 3rd District and not its 9th. Republican Fred Keller’s 36-point win matched well with Trump’s 36-point win in the district.
When you average across the three congressional special elections this year, you see the Democrats are outperforming their 2016 presidential baseline by less than 5 points. In the 11 special congressional special elections between the start of Trump’s presidency in 2017 and the 2018 midterms, they were outperforming their baseline by 12 points.
It would be easy to say that no one cared about North Carolina’s 3rd or Pennsylvania’s 12th District special election. These races were never thought of as competitive, and the turnout was low.
However, I’d pushed back heavily against that concept. There were a number of special elections last cycle (e.g. Kansas’s 4th and South Carolina’s 5th) which weren’t supposed to be competitive and were low turnout affairs. In both cases, Democrats outperformed the 2016 presidential baseline by double-digits.
The trend in the state legislative special elections look like the trend in the congressional special elections, too. Democrats are outperforming their baseline on the state legislative level as they are in congressional specials, but not anywhere to the degree that they were during the 2017 to 2018 period.
Now, you could argue that we still have a small sample size of only three congressional special elections this year. That’s true, and it’s a good point. While state legislative elections are an additive point, I’d really like to see more congressional special elections if we’re going to make anything close to a definitive statement about what they’re telling us.
Furthermore, you could point out that special elections in the lead up to presidential elections aren’t as predictive of those as special elections are in the lead up to a midterm. As I noted on Monday, the congressional special elections in 2015 and 2016 weren’t predictive at all of what happened in 2016’s presidential election.
Indeed, other indicators do not suggests Republicans aren’t in any better position than they were last year. Trump is still quite unpopular. He trails his potential Democratic opponents in hypothetical matchups. Additionally, more Americans are worried about the future of the economy than previously.
Overall, Trump’s re-election hopes are still not great, and the special elections this year haven’t been bad news for Democrats. I’m just not sure I’d really use special elections to argue Trump is in danger, when looking at this year’s special elections in their totality.