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Closing the Books on CA 50

By Jay Cost

The results from California's 50th district are now in - and Republican Brian Bilbray has defeated Democrat Francine Busby in the contest to complete the tenure of Duke Cunningham. This was Busby's third try at seizing the seat. She is now 0-for-3. The two will face off again in November, but it seems highly likely that the GOP will hold the seat.

Pundits and partisans across the land have examined the returns to divine some kind of meaning from them. What did the voters tell us? Many answers have been offered - not all of them valid. Many people have seen this result as being the product of national forces - the extent to which immigration, congressional corruption, and Bush's low numbers are mixing with one another outside DC. However, scholarly research calls for skepticism on that front. The evidence is that demographics, candidate quality, campaign spending, and district partisanship are the main determinants of special elections; national forces have not historically been factors.

This, however, does not mean that Tuesday's results do not have discernible national implications. One thing we do know: historically speaking, special elections tend to be determined in the same way that open seat elections are determined. The similarities are not perfect (presidential job approval plays some role in open seats), but a model that predicts open seat elections would be very robust when predicting special elections.

In this way, then, I think CA 50 provides us with some clues to a subset of the contests in November's midterm. These are the other conservative-leaning open seats - specifically MN 06 and WI 08. Among the aforementioned variables, the Republicans are either as well or better positioned in both districts as they were in CA 50. Thus, the fact that Bilbray was able to hold on in a district like CA 50 is, I think, an indication that the GOP will likely retain MN 06 and WI 08.

I think the crucial indicator is that CA 50 voted roughly "normally". By normal I mean the following. Kerry's share of the two-party vote in the district was 44.3%. Gore's share was 44.1%. Busby's share on Tuesday was 48%. In other words, Busby was able to attract a larger percentage of voters than Kerry or Gore could - but not much more. There was some deviation toward the Democrats Tuesday, but not a significant amount.

The size of the deviation becomes less significant for November's contests when we consider the possible influence of the gubernatorial primary - which might have offered Busby a structural "bump" in the two-party vote. In other words, if the Democratic gubernatorial primary was a necessary condition for some of Busby's total, her share of the two-party vote was inflated, and not due to the underlying partisan trends in the district. Further, the taint of Cunningham on the GOP, while it might have affected the partisan trends in the district, will not affect the trend outside CA 50 (regardless of how hard the Democrats push the "culture of corruption" theme). So, simply because Busby pulled 48% of the two-party vote does not mean that Democratic candidates in other, similarly composed, districts will.

This potential bias diminishes our capacity to generalize from the results - but only to a certain extent. These biases favored Busby in ways that will not favor the Democrats nationally. Thus, ostensibly generalizable Democratic strengths might simply be due to the peculiarities of the district. From the Democrats perspective, we might say that the type of error here is the possibility of a false positive. On the flip side, we have the possibility of a false negative in evaluating the GOP's performance - the dynamic of the race might have masked real GOP advantages. As this seems to be the only potential error in the data, we can be confident that apparent GOP advantages are indeed real (i.e. there is no apparent risk of a false positive when identifying GOP advantages or false negatives when identifying Democratic advantages). This is what enables us to conclude that CA 50 is a good omen for the GOP in WI 08 and MN 06. To put it metaphorically - the Republicans might have been swimming upstream in CA 50. Thus, in other districts that are similar but in which they will definitely not be swimming upstream, they can at least get as far. The Democrats, on the other hand, might have been swimming downstream. Thus, they might not be able to replicate this result in similarly constructed districts.

This is why the two seemingly good bits of news for Democrats might not be as significant as they appear at first glance. The first is Bilbray's inability to attract non-Republicans. If we assume that all of the voters in the Republican primary then voted for Bilbray in the special (and ditto for Busby), it means that Bilbray only attracted about 1,000 independent voters. If we factor in William Griffith, the conservative independent candidate, and compare right-leaning candidates to Busby (the sole left-leaning candidate), we see that the latter won about 4,000 more independent votes than the former.

Unfortunately for Democrats, under this assumption, the percentage of independent voters who voted in the special was low. Republicans comprise about 44% of the CA 50 electorate; they were 48.4% of special election voters. Democrats comprise 29.7% of the electorate; they were 37.5% of special election voters. Independents comprise 26.3% of registered voters; they were only 14.1% of special election voters. Thus, the good news for Democrats, they won the independents, has an important caveat, the independents stayed home. The partisan breakdown of the special results does not indicate an activated Democratic base, a depressed GOP base and a stream of independents moving to the Democrats. Instead, it indicates an activated GOP base, an even more activated Democratic base, and largely inactive independents. In keeping with the possibility of a false positive, we have actually just described the best-case scenario for the Democrats - for here we are implicitly presuming that the relatively large Democratic turnout was not due to the Angelides/Westly contest and that Busby's strong showing among independents was not due to Cunningham.

The second item of good news for Democrats: the GOP spent a lot of money to produce a normal district vote. I have seen reports of NRCC spending ranging from $3 million to $5 million. What this means, though, is equally unclear. Heavy GOP spending might have been caused by softness in their voting coalition - which in turn might have been due either to a general GOP malaise or the peculiarity of running in the wake of Cunningham. It might also have been due to their desire to mitigate the effects of the Democratic gubernatorial primary. We cannot say - and thus we cannot confidently discern whether the GOP's spending spree was a sign of real Democratic strength.

What, then, can we conclude? Again, any perceived GOP advantages were probably real. Thus, let us assume the best case scenario for the Democrats - Cunningham and Westly/Angelides did not provide a unique, non-generalizable advantage to Busby - and see what GOP strengths still exist. This enables us to conclude the following: (a) the election was largely normal - and thus a sign that the GOP is in good shape in MN 06 and WI 08; (b) the Democrats cannot wait around for the GOP to self-destruct; they must find a way to activate independent voters if they hope to win MN 06 or WI 08; and (c) barring such activation, the Republicans can probably achieve a normal result in MN 06 and WI 08 by spending more than the Democrats - which should not be a problem. One of the advantages of a relatively small playing field with so many well-funded incumbents is that the Republicans will not be wanting for money anywhere. Incumbents like Clay Shaw and Jim Gerlach might be endangered, but they do not have cash problems - which takes pressure off the party to fund Republican challengers.

What the CA 50 results provide, then, is prima facie evidence of the lay of the electoral land. And it appears that, to get to the requisite 15, the Democrats are going to have to defeat a lot of Republican incumbents. If we take CA 50, MN 06 and WI 08 off the table, we have only four, maybe five, open seats where the Democrats stand a reasonable chance: AZ 08, CO 07, IA 01, NY 24. A fifth, IL 06, is a tricky case. Busby's increased share of the two-party vote was sizeable enough that, if repeated in IL 06 with Democratic nominee Tammy Duckworth, it would essentially reduce the race in suburban Chicago to a tossup. However, once again, we do not know the extent to which we can generalize the Democrats' share of the two-party vote outside CA 50. The decision is ultimately one of accounting - since we are principally interested in whether the Democrats can capture the House, the conservative move is to keep IL 06 on the potential capture list and see if a Democratic 110th is plausible.

Keeping IL 06 on the potential capture list means that the Democrats must take a net of 10 seats (probably a gross of 12, accounting for a GOP pushback of two seats) from incumbent Republicans to win the House. I find this to be extremely problematic for the Party of Roosevelt. Since WWII, it has increasingly been the case that the "action" in partisan seat swings is confined to the open seats. Incumbents have become safer and safer. Thus, beating 12 Republican incumbents in 2006 is, in itself, difficult to imagine. It becomes even more difficult to imagine when we put together any list of seats that are on the table. Democrats cannot hope to defeat all of the Republicans in Democrat-leaning or swing districts. Many of them will survive - that is what incumbents do. Thus, on any minimal list of potential Democratic pickups - we will find about a half dozen incumbents who are (a) in districts at least as conservative as CA 50, (b) not on a ballot that offers structural advantages to the Democrats, (c) not tarnished by scandal, and (d) not facing opponents that can spend $4 million.

There is no doubt that the national conditions are decidedly in the Democrats' favor - nor is there any doubt that these conditions will cause the Republicans to lose a not insubstantial number of seats. At the same time, though, Tuesday night's results imply that the Democrats' path to 15 - always a narrow one - is narrower than many have thought.

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