Harry Enten makes three important observations about the results in yesterday’s special election for Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District. Debbie Lesko, a Republican state senator, appears to have defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician, by five or six points. But it’s a district that preferred Mitt Romney to Barack Obama by 25 points and Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton by 21 points. Overall, AZ-08 is twenty-five points more Republican than the nation as a whole. This Republican underperformance isn’t new; it’s part of a pattern we’ve seen this year and last in special elections where the Democrats are consistently doing much better than they have in the recent past.
But Enten notes that the Republicans had legitimate reason to hope that last night’s special election would break the pattern or at least show less severe erosion. For one, the generic congressional ballot still shows a preference for the Democrats but it’s a weaker preference than was present for prior special elections. For another, there was no turnout differential, meaning that Republican registrants showed up at the same rate as Democratic registrants, and overall turnout was robust and nearly at the same level as the 2014 midterms. There was high interest on both sides and solid participation, which is unusual in special elections. These numbers were already evident in the early mail-in vote and they should have favored the Republican candidate in a heavily Republican district, but there was still a massive drop-off in the margin of victory. This takes away the two most commonly used excuses for Republican underperformance: low turnout and an enthusiasm gap.
The third excuse is candidate quality. In the senatorial special election in Alabama and the recent special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, the Republican candidates were seen as somewhere between criminally reprehensible and outright lackluster. The Democratic candidates were seen as atypically talented. Enten thinks the Arizona matchup was a much more even fight.
Finally, Republicans had a good candidate in Lesko. She had no major scandals and raised plenty of money. One of the excuses in previous elections that Republicans lost like Alabama US Senate (with Republican Roy Moore) and Pennsylvania 18 (with Republican Rick Saccone) was that the Republican was either scandal plagued or didn’t know how to raise funds. Lesko wasn’t either of those, and there was still a significant shift to the left.
The main reason all of this matters is that there are reasons to doubt that the Democrats will do as well in the midterms next November as they’ve been doing in these specials, and the biggest doubts have to do with enthusiasm and turnout. The lower the overall participation, the greater the importance of enthusiasm. All votes count equally, whether they are cast with a smile or a grimace. If Republicans turn out in November it won’t matter that they aren’t skipping to the polls eager to mark their ballots for the GOP candidates. But if they stay home and the Democrats show up, then they may lose a lot of seats. That’s the theory, but the Arizona results show that the problem is different. A lot of registered Republicans are showing up and voting for the Democratic candidate.
Now, just yesterday the New York Times ran an article on a study purporting to find that Trump voters were motivated by their fear of losing their privileged position in American society rather than by economic anxieties. That’s a polite way of saying that racism played a bigger role than concerns about retirement security or economic opportunity. I’m all for studying the electorate, but the Arizona results should be considered here, too.
The Democratic candidate was born in Mumbai, India. She was running in a Sunbelt district known for its large population of white retirees. Because of the large and growing Latino population of Arizona, the politics there have a built-in racial character and Republicans see their advantages slipping away which causes them seek ways to maintain power by disenfranchising Latino voters. This district is almost ground zero for the type of status anxiety whites feel in the face of demographic change. An Indian-American immigrant running against a white woman presented a clear tribal choice for voters primarily motivated by this kind of anxiety. Nonetheless the results showed a massive crossover of Trump voters to the Democrat.
What the Democrats should start studying this morning are the causes of this crossover. What elements of it are durable? What themes are transferable to other districts?
But they won’t even think to do that if they continue to believe that Trump’s voters are all deplorable lost causes who are too motivated by racism and protecting their privilege to be reachable by any messages.