Home World NewsUnited Kingdom Not an Ordinary Special Election, and Yet a Typical Result

Not an Ordinary Special Election, and Yet a Typical Result

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As I prepared to write this ahead of Tuesday’s special election to replace George Santos in New York’s Third District, two completely different outcomes seemed easy to imagine — or explain away.

One was that the results would be excellent for Democrats, like most special elections this year. If their strength was just about the low turnout, it might not say much about their appeal to the wider electorate this November.

Another was that the result would be excellent for Republicans, as New York and Long Island have been for Republicans over the last few years. If so, it might just be another New York romp, with little meaning for the rest of the country.

Either way, the special election could not tell us much about President Biden’s chances in the general election.

In the end, it was a triumph for the Democrats. Tom Suozzi, a former Democratic representative, defeated the Republican Mazi Pilip by just under eight points (54 percent to 46 percent) as of this writing.

The result is significant in one sense: It puts Democrats one seat closer to retaking the House, and that’s no small matter when Republicans entered the night clinging to a thin majority.

But significant does not necessarily mean informative — at least not when it comes to the big questions about the general election.

Special elections are special — it’s in the name! They’re distinctive low-turnout affairs that draw from an unusual group of engaged voters. Over the last three decades, there has been essentially zero relationship between presidential results and special election outcomes, based on data collected by Daily Kos. And this particular election had many idiosyncrasies.

Not your ordinary special election. As we’ve written recently, it’s hard to glean much from special elections. They aren’t remotely representative of the general electorate. Only the most highly engaged partisan voters participate. And over the last few years, more of those voters have been Democrats — powering a big Democratic advantage.

That’s not quite a fair description of this particular one.. For a special election, Tuesday’s turnout was robust — higher than any special election so far this cycle. On paper, it was as much like a midterm as it was like a typical special election. The balance of partisan turnout was also fairly typical, at least based on the party registration figures reported from Nassau County.

Why was this special so different? You can start by thanking the infamous Mr. Santos, whose attention-grabbing story line all but guaranteed outsize media attention. For good measure, this was a Republican-held Biden seat in a closely divided House, ensuring national stakes and coverage. (Not many special elections find themselves the subject of The Daily, our flagship podcast.)

The campaign was unusual as well. Millions were spent on campaign advertisements, with Democrats outspending Republicans by a wide margin. And unlike with most special elections, Democrats nominated a fairly well-known candidate. Mr. Suozzi, who retired ahead of the 2022 election, had a strong electoral track record, having beaten Mr. Santos here by more than 12 points in 2020.

On balance, these idiosyncratic factors tended to favor the Democrats. The backdrop of Mr. Santos probably helped energize Democrats, as voters tend to punish the party enmeshed in scandal in special elections. The quasi-incumbent Mr. Suozzi undoubtedly helped, and so did Democrats’ strong fund-raising advantage. There was even a big snowstorm on Tuesday that may have dampened Republican Election Day turnout (Democrats voted more by mail). Add in the broader tendency for Democrats to excel in low-turnout special elections nowadays, and it’s pretty easy to see why Democrats managed to win this district that President Biden won four years ago.

The confusing comparison point. Usually, analysts judge special election results as I just did: by comparing them to the last presidential result. In this district, Mr. Biden won by just over eight points in 2020 — that’s about the same as the margin of victory here. So we’d usually say this was a fairly straightforward result. If anything, one could advance the idea that the results were slightly underwhelming for Democrats, given all of the aforementioned advantages than Mr. Suozzi seemed to possess. Either way, a single special election result like this one is entirely consistent with polls showing Mr. Biden and Democrats in a close race heading into 2024.

But the usual presidential-based analysis had a hiccup in this election: New York — and Long Island specifically — has been terrific for Republicans in the last few years. This may have been a Biden district, but Mr. Santos won by 10 points in 2022 and the polls continue to show Republicans faring well here heading into 2024. Against that baseline, the Democratic performance was outright fantastic.

I think it’s entirely plausible to argue that these results are great for Democrats, given what’s going on in New York. It’s a lot less plausible, however, to interpret the results as a repudiation of Democratic weakness in the Empire State. In August 2022, Democrats excelled in two New York special congressional elections, including one with national stakes, only to get clobbered in the midterm election in the same districts and the same state just two months later. These idiosyncratic special elections just don’t easily allow for grand extrapolation.

The polling of the race raises another possibility: that Mr. Biden is just that much weaker than Mr. Suozzi. Last week, a Siena College poll — not a New York Times/Siena poll, to be clear — found Mr. Biden running a full nine percentage points behind Mr. Suozzi and trailing Donald J. Trump in the district.

Put it all together, and this election was clearly going to be tough to interpret. Not only are special elections generally unrepresentative, but the oddities of this one made it even harder to interpret. With New York standing out as an area of unusual relative weakness for Democrats, even a clear Republican win might not have had much meaning elsewhere. And with Mr. Suozzi possessing so many advantages in a Biden district, it’s just as hard to say the result shows Democrats far better positioned than previously thought.

P.S. on the polling. A few of my editors asked about the polling, which showed Mr. Suozzi ahead by a modest margin (our friends at Siena showed him ahead by four points) but didn’t show him on track for a decisive victory.

A three- or four-point miss isn’t perfect, but that’s pretty good for a House election — let alone a special election. Historically, the average House poll is off by something like six points. But I understand why people pause at even a modest underestimate of Democrats right now, as the presidential race would undoubtedly look quite a bit different if it shifted three or four points toward Mr. Biden.

The likeliest answer here is probably about turnout. When we saw Siena took a poll, I told my editor I wouldn’t touch special elections with a 10-foot pole (I do not believe a pun was intended). Our analysis suggests that special elections are almost entirely decided by turnout, and nailing a one-off low turnout electorate is not something polls are especially good at. Indeed, the Siena poll electorate had equal numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans; the actual electorate appears to have been D+7 or so (it was D+5 in Nassau County, the larger and less Democratic county of the district).

Given the unusual challenge of estimating the likely electorate in a special election compared with a general election, I wouldn’t read anything into that disparity for November. But there are a lot of signs right now that Democrats are excelling among highly engaged voters — including special elections — and I do think this has the potential to pose some challenges for pollsters in the fall. It may also mean, as we wrote last week, that the polls of all registered voters might be underestimating Mr. Biden compared with the likely electorate.

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