A Little Bit of Hype Can Go a Long Way in Special Elections

(Bloomberg View) -- We're coming up on another U.S. House special election, this time in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. It's a fairly solid Republican seat, but Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have a fairly good chance to defeat Republican Rick Saccone. Some Republicans are already spinning the possible loss

Naturally, there's a lot of media hype surrounding it. Every election is important. This one is just a lot less than most. 

While special elections in the aggregate can give some indication of what might happen in future general elections, it's not clear how much they tell us beyond other indicators such as presidential approval rates or generic ballot polling. Regardless, special elections don't tell us much. We already know that special elections in general have been trending strongly in Democrats' favor; a little more or less here won't change that. 

Still, heavy hype can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Expectations can be important, because party actors make decisions based on whether they think an election cycle will prove to be good for Democrats, good for Republicans or neutral. The most important of these decisions are the ones made by politicians to run or not to run. But it's already March, and most of those decisions have already been made. Yes, there are still plenty of upcoming filing deadlines, and it's certainly possible that a few Republican incumbents who are right on the verge of a decision could be affected by this special, and that one or more of those elections will wind up with different outcomes, but at best we're taking about a small effect here. 

At least in most elections the seat itself matters, both now and into the future. But with Pennsylvania about to be redistricted, the winner won't even have a regular incumbent advantage this fall. 

Anyone looking for elections that really matter is better off going over the results from the Texas primaries earlier this week or the Illinois primaries on March 20. No, they won't give you particularly great insight into which party will do well in November, either. But primary elections define political parties, and so these elections are very good indicators of where each party is internally and how the winners will act going forward.

And that's worth quite a bit of hype.

1. At the Monkey Cage, Danny Hayes talks with Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt about their research on women in office.

2. Duyeon Kim on the news from Korea.

3. Nate Cohn on the stability in recent polling.

4. Matt Fuller on the slim House agenda for the rest of the year. 

5. And my Bloomberg View colleague Barry Ritholtz on executive compensation.

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

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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