Putting special elections in context

The polls were right. As expected, Republicans had a very good night, easily winning two congressional special elections in districts Democrats hoped to compete in. In Nevada’s 2nd, Republican Mark Amodei cruised to an easy, 22-point win over Democrat Kate Marshall, and in New York’s 9th, Republican Bob Turner won by eight over Democrat David Weprin.

There are plenty of angles to consider to the results. We could talk about the fact that Weprin just wasn’t a good candidate. We might mention that New York’s 9th isn’t quite as “blue” as advertised, the race had some unique local issues, and the district will likely be eliminated through redistricting anyway. We could explore just how conservative Nevada’s 2nd really is, and why it was always probably a pipe dream for Dems anyway.

And while all of those angles matter, let’s instead put all of that aside and talk about special elections in a larger context. Because, after all, the main question the political world seems to be asking this morning is whether the results portend larger trouble for Democrats in general, and President Obama specifically.

Jonathan Bernstein had a sharp item on this yesterday.

Republicans, and some neutral commentators, are already spinning that outcome as proof that Democrats will have a tough time next year. In reality, you can safely ignore everything you hear about What It All Means and What It Tells Us About 2012.

Certainly, the electoral landscape — as reflected in these races — would be difference if Barack Obama’s approval ratings were in the low 60s instead of the low 40s. But we don’t need special elections to tell us that. As for predicting the future, it’s well-established that special elections don’t do that (although partisans and some reporters seem to have very short memories). […]

So do pay attention to these two special elections. Just don’t expect them to tell us what the American people think of Barack Obama — national polls do that job much better. And don’t expect them to tell us anything about November 2012. For that, we’ll just have to wait.

Let’s flesh this out a bit, looking at the last few cycles. In the 109th Congress (2005 and 2006), going into the November 2006 midterms, there were four U.S. House special elections — Republicans won three, Democrats won one, and neither party flipped any seats. Did this offer hints about the Democratic wave that would sweep the GOP out of their majorities in both chambers? Obviously not.

In the 110th Congress (2007 and 2008), going into Election Day in November 2008, there were 12 U.S. House special elections — Republicans won four, Democrats won eight, and Dems successfully turned three “red” seats “blue.” Were these Democratic gains an “omen” of things to come? Maybe! It’s worth noting, though, that the Dem wins came much closer to the ’08 elections (rather than the summer before, which is where we are now).

And in the 111th Congress (2009 and 2010), going into the 2010 midterms, there were 10 U.S. House special elections — Republicans won two, Democrats won eight, and each party flipped one district previously held by the other party. Of particular interest, from March ’09 to May ’10, Dems won seven straight special elections, even flipping one district Republicans had held for more than a century. Did this offer evidence of the burgeoning Republican wave? Not even a little.

So far this year, there have been four U.S. House special elections — Republicans have won two, Democrats have won two, and each have flipped a seat previously held by the other party. What does this tell us about the 2012 elections? Ask me again a year from now.