What’s Special About Special Elections

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Here come the special elections — and with them, the special-elections hype.

North Carolina has two votes on Tuesday. In the 9th Congressional District, voters are finally going to resolve the 2018 election after the original results were thrown out last year. And the vote in the 3rd District will fill a vacancy left when a Republican House member, Walter Jones, died in February.

The action is in the 9th District, which leans Republican but is expected to have a close election. Both parties are throwing money at it, and the winning party will no doubt brag about how this means it will win in 2020.

Special elections tend to get more attention than they probably deserve, especially when the outcome is a surprise. That doesn’t mean they are unimportant. To understand their true impact, we have to distinguish the reality from the spin. 

Let’s start with the hype. We’ll hear from the winners, and perhaps from some in the news media, that these elections tell us the mood of the electorate. The idea is that we should listen to actual voters. Yet there’s little evidence that the results of special elections anticipate anything about the next general election other than what we already know. That also applies to off-year elections, which we’ll have in November in Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia.

It is true that, carefully adjusted and in the aggregate, the outcomes of the specials do correlate with the results of future elections. But individual specials are less reliable as indicators. They’re hard to adjust for the partisan lean of the district, since we only have estimates for that. In any case, polling and fundamentals-based analysis already tell us everything the special election does when it comes to outcomes and what voters are really thinking. 

Yet every election matters, because every elected official counts. True, few bills come down to a difference of a single vote on the House floor. The more members of a party, however, the easier it is to round up enough support for legislation without having to bargain with reluctant members; that cushion means members can “vote their districts,” if they choose to.

Individual members can also make a difference when it comes to introducing a bill, asking specific questions in committee or in forming unusual coalitions. Indeed, Walter Jones was a good example of someone who often defied Republican orthodoxy. 

Special and off-year elections can play a big role in influencing potential candidates who will be deciding over the next few months whether to run for higher office this year or wait for a better opportunity. Incumbents are also deciding whether to seek another term or if it’s time to retire. A major factor is their expectation about the partisan tides in 2020.

Then there is the potential impact on how the next set of elections will be run. For example, as Greg Sargent reports, Republicans are to some extent using the 9th District contest to test tying Democratic candidates to liberal positions on immigration and to new liberal Democratic House members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

If Republican Dan Bishop wins, expect ads by other Republicans to emphasize those themes, too. If Democrat Dan McCready wins, then other Democratic campaigns are likely to replicate his ad strategy. It’s not just ads. High-profile events have disproportionate effects on what party actors think about how voters respond in general, and that can contribute to changes in the party’s positions and priorities.

Anything that affects the content of campaigns matters a lot. Politicians tend to try to keep their promises, especially the ones that get the most attention. 

So while Tuesday’s results won’t in themselves signal much about 2020, there’s a lot swirling around the election that might cause a ripple effect. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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