When Election Twitter explores the result of a special or regular election, comparisons to previous elections inevitably arise, as this niche world obsessed with numbers attempts to deduce what has changed, and, for the multitude of partisans involved, which side benefited from the race.
Someone unfamiliar with the particularities of contests may just assume that the party that won is the winner. In general, that is the case, but often we see regions or specific seats targeted by the out-party where they have come up painfully short, so any information they could gain for “the next round” some feel will prove the key to their eventual victory.
The change in the margins do matter over time: if you notice a particular region has become soft for a dominant party, observing additional elections there could confirm the trend or refute it as a blip.
But here comes the problem for amateurs and professionals alike: what is your baseline? It is quite easy, in the act of selecting a referential contest, to pick one that will make the outcome look better (or worse) for a partisan side or personal theory.
On Tuesday, voters in eastern Kentucky filled a vacancy in State Senate District 31 held by a Democrat, Ray Jones. The candidates, Republican Phillip Weaver and Democrat Darrell Pugh, were fighting over a region that had shifted dramatically on the Presidential level over the last twenty years, voting narrowly for Al Gore in 2000 but by a 4-1 margin in 2016. Here’s how Matthew Isbell summed up the contest:
Article up! Kentucky Democrats are pushing to hold #SD31 in Tuesday’s special election. This seat backed Trump with 80% but locally is very democratic. Question is, can Democrats hold on the Kentucky Coal fields? https://t.co/IjmlFa2Xih #KYpol #Kyga19 pic.twitter.com/WpADf97n6W
— Matthew Isbell (@mcimaps) March 4, 2019
Yes because of a popular democratic incumbent who went on to win a county executive seat in Pike. I think it’s worth focusing on how the district votes than wether the longtime incumbent was challenged before.
— Matthew Isbell (@mcimaps) March 6, 2019
Indeed, the previous Democratic State Senator had run three consecutive times without a Republican opponent, reflecting the historical strength of Democrats in the area and their residual grip on it at a local level.
One could get the impression that the win was a paltry one compared to the Presidential election, and that’s true- Trump vastly over performed Weaver. One could also get the impression the win was massive, because the baseline for a Republican there, for this particular office, was 0%.
When approaching contests to try to divine changes over time, the best thing is to look at as many contests as possible, and consider the factors that may make a particular office favor one party or another. To Isbell’s point, the incumbent was quite popular and successfully ran for a higher office (because, again, he’s popular there). But even if the incumbent was popular, to Booth’s point, the Republicans hadn’t even bothered with the seat, assuming it gone.
Open contests, whether special elections or just open because an incumbent has retired or is prohibited from running again, differ from contests featuring an incumbent. Sometimes incumbency can save a seat, often in waves, like we saw in 2018, it can’t. But determining if the movement from earlier waves is continuing or has already subsided is tough to do between major cycles, so many in recent years have paid particular attention to special elections.
We’re all grasping at each new data point, staring into our crystal balls to predict the future. Over the next two years we are going to get plenty of special contests, wild race results, and a deluge of amateur- and professional- interpretations of these.
Take it all in, and before you leap to your next conclusion, consider the leaf you’re already on. It isn’t the only one in the forest.