What do early special elections really tell us?

Sean McMinn at Roll Call has a piece today arguing we shouldn’t read too much into special elections in the first hundred days of a new administration. Historically speaking, the challenging party has done well in early special elections though not well enough to overturn the results of the general.

Since Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, there have been seven House special elections before or during the first 100 days of a president’s term. In each of them, the district stuck with the same party its voters chose during the previous year’s general election. But only once did the winning candidate in the special election get a higher percentage of the vote than their party’s candidate in the preceding November election.

That’s what we just saw in the Kansas 4th where Republican Ron Estes underperformed Mike Pompeo, who won the seat for the GOP in November, by eight point.

In the Georgia 6th, which Rep. Tom Price vacated to become Health and Human Services secretary, Georgia Republicans are unlikely to do better than Price did in November in the upcoming special, which was almost 62%.

In that race there are a number of Republicans splintering the vote for their side. If Democrat Jon Ossoff, who is currently leading, doesn’t get to 50% in the primary, the second place finisher, which will be a Republican, will have a shot at Price’s result. It is unlikely to happen, however,  as Ossoff is running a strong campaign with a lot of outside support.

McMinn writes:

There are a few reasons that could explain why special election candidates have generally not performed as well as their party did in preceding general elections. Turnout, for one, is generally lower in special elections, so top-of-the-ticket boosts wouldn’t carry over to the specials. And with fewer races to focus on, outside spending or an endorsement from the president can shift the dynamic in these otherwise unremarkable congressional races. Candidates in special elections also don’t have the advantages held by the incumbent.

The only time more recently that a Democrat or Republican did better than the previously successful candidate from their own party was in 1993 “following Obama’s re-election victory, in the special election to replace Democratic Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr.”  In that case the Illinois representative left office due to an ethics investigation after earning 63 percent in 2012. In the special election to follow, Rep. Robin Kelly took 71 percent of the vote in the majority black, Chicago-area district.

All of this is to say that it is typical for candidates to hold the seat for their party in a special election not long after the general, but by reduced margins for the reasons cited above. In the case of the Kansas 4th, Pompeo beat his Democratic challenger by 31% in November. Estes held the seat by just under 7%.

I take Mr. McMinn’s point. The question is, when do the numbers tell us that this is politics as usual, and when do they suggest something different?

Kansas seems to be something different, as Georgia may be as well.

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