There’s no debate about whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has motivated Democratic voters. Based on the evidence of four special elections since June 23rd, it’s clear it has. The bigger question is, will it be enough to offset President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings and mute the expected red wave come November? To answer that question, we need to look at where these elections were held, the types of voters who turned out, and how that compares to the electorate expected in the general election.
In the first half of 2022, conventional wisdom within the political world suggested that Republican candidates in the House and Senate would romp to comfortable victories in November’s midterm election. Between the Biden administration’s historically low approval ratings, Republican successes in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, and Mayra Flores’ surprise June win in TX-34 (a seat Democrat Filemon Vela Jr. won by~13% in 2020), Republicans looked all but guaranteed to win the modest gains needed to flip control of the House and Senate. Prediction markets gave Republicans a 76% chance to win control of both chambers on June 23rd, and Republicans held a 2.8% lead in 2022 generic ballot polling on that day.
Now, just over 2 months later, the situation has changed. These same prediction markets now only give Republicans a 34% chance to win control of both chambers, and the GOP has seen their generic ballot lead trimmed to just 0.8%. What happened? Most are quick to point out that on June 24th, the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade with their ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, and abortion immediately became illegal in many areas. But given that economic issues consistently outpoll social issues in importance to American voters, it is also notable that inflation has finally begun to decline and Democrats passed a reconciliation bill including popular provisions such as lowering prescription drug costs and raising taxes on large corporations. But the main reason that prediction markets are now so bullish on the Democratic midterm outlook (especially given that there has only been a 2% shift in generic ballot polling) is based on the party’s success in four US House Special Elections since that June 23rd nadir: NE-01 on June 28th, MN-01 on August 9th, and NY-19/NY-23 on August 23rd. Democrats overperformed Joe Biden’s 2020 result in all four districts and were especially thrilled with Pat Ryan’s surprising win in NY-19, especially given Data for Progress and DCCC polls showed a comfortable GOP lead heading into election night. On average, Democrats outperformed Biden’s 2020 result by 5.7%; this signals a shocking D+10 environment (close to 2018) given that Biden defeated Trump nationally by 4.4%. These results are, indisputably, very good news for the Democratic Party (especially given that they were struggling to win Biden+20 House of Delegate seats in Fairfax County just last November). But, what are the reasons to take these elections with a grain of salt rather than blindly extrapolating them to November? Why don’t these results necessarily signal an imminent blue wave?
Voters in Educated Areas Solely Powered Democratic Success
Democrats have been gaining strength in higher educated areas this entire century, but it wasn’t until the 2016 Presidential Election that educational polarization began to accelerate. Now six years later, Democratic vote share is exceptionally strongly correlated with educational attainment in heavily White areas, including the districts where the four recent Special Elections were held. Broken down at a county-wide level, Democrats dominated the higher education areas while Republicans dominated the lower education areas in these four special elections.
But Democrats are not only winning highly educated areas by a modest amount through these post-Dobbs special elections, they are winning them by more than ever before. While Democrats have shifted highly educated counties in their direction between the 2020 Presidential Election and the 2022 House Special election, Republicans have still gained in less educated counties.
These results undoubtedly (and unsurprisingly) indicate that educational polarization is accelerating further in light of the Dobbs decision as abortion rises in salience as a political issue. While Democrats have to be highly pleased with their Special Election performances, these shifts towards their party have not been remotely universal.
Fast Stat: Democratic Special Election House candidates outperformed Joe Biden by ~6% on average in four recent special elections after Roe v. Wade was overturned. In the 3 counties (Tompkins NY, Olmsted MN, and Lancaster NE) with 40%+ Bachelor’s Degree attainment, Democrats outperformed their 2020 results by 8%. In the other 48 counties, Democrats only outperformed their 2020 results by 1%.
Educated Voters are Turning Out At High Rates in These Specials
Not only did highly educated counties vote for Democrats by unprecedented margins, but voters from these areas turned out at incredible rates for the party. Democrats have lagged behind Republicans in voter enthusiasm for most of this election cycle, but the Dobbs decision may have turned this trend on the head. Now Democrats are trouncing Republicans, driven by astronomical turnout within these highly educated counties.
Fast Stat: No single county better exemplifies this turnout phenomenon than Tompkins County in the NY-23 Special Election. In 2020, highly educated Tompkins County (home to Ithaca and Cornell University) composed ~15% of voters in the NY-23 election. Last Tuesday, this number grew to ~19% as Tompkins County voters were ~35% more likely to turn out than other voters in the district. This surge allowed Democrat Max Della Pia to come within ~7% of winning NY-23, a district Trump carried by ~16% in 2020.
The National Electorate Will Look Different in November than in These Special Elections
The four districts that held special elections are not representative of the nation. All of the districts are heavily white (average 85% vs. 75% for the nation as a whole) and consist of only small to mid-sized towns and cities (Lincoln, NE is the largest single metro area primarily within any of these districts, at only 151st in the nation). Given that white voters in small to mid-sized towns and cities are trending towards the Democratic Party (especially in disproportionately well-educated areas), it shouldn’t be a surprise that a significant event such as Roe v. Wade could trigger more rapid partisan realignment through educational polarization. Republicans are gaining the most in areas with a high minority population, which they could not showcase in these special elections. The Democratic electorate in these districts is much more white and well-educated than the party’s national voter base. These white and well-educated voters are much more likely to be energized by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision, and Democratic turnout in more diverse and less-educated communities may not increase as much.
Finally, it is essential to remember that even elections in these districts between these candidates may look significantly different in November. These special elections averaged 33% turnout with respect to the 2020 presidential election, a far lower turnout than expected in the midterm elections this November. Given that highly educated voters tend to be more politically active than the average American, it is unsurprising that more highly educated groups of voters and the party they support (Democrats) dominated these low turnout elections.
Further Success in Very Educated Areas Won’t Help Democrats Win the House
Democrats have already been gaining in the exceptionally educated portions of America to the point where the party is almost completely maxed out in these districts. After the 2016 Presidential Election, Democrats controlled 27 of the 38 house districts where more than 45% of adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Now, after the 2020 General Election, Democrats control 36 of these 38 districts (only wins by Van Taylor in TX-03 and Ann Wagner in MO-02 were able to prevent a complete shutout for the GOP). And most of these incumbents won’t even be in competitive races this November; all 36 are running in districts to the left of the nation as a whole, and only Sharice Davids (KS-03) and Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) have less than a 90% chance of winning according to our latest House forecast. Even if voters in these districts turnout for Democrats at an absurd rate and produce absurd margins for the party, just as these voters have in the four recent special elections, they will have a negligible effect on the overall control of the house.