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Quick Thoughts on NY-26

Quick Thoughts on NY-26

By Sean Trende - May 25, 2011

As of this writing, Democrat Kathy Hochul leads Republican Jane Corwin and Democrat-turned-"tea party" candidate Jack Davis with 47.1 percent of the vote to 42.5 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively. New York's 26th Congressional District leans Republican, and so the party spin machines are already in overdrive trying to explain meaning of the election.

Democrats (many of whom were adamant just six months ago that elections were about the economy and not policy positions) are claiming that this represents a massive upset victory in a district that John McCain won by six points, and that the race had become a referendum on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget. Republicans point to the odd nature of the three-way race, and argue that, absent Jack Davis, Corwin would have won.

This is already becoming one of those never-ending arguments, which neither side will win. Democrats can point out that, with Hochul at 47 percent, and polling suggesting that at least some of Davis' supporters were Democrats, she probably would have won even if he had not run. Republicans can respond that this analysis misses the fact that Davis forced Corwin to fight a two-front war, prompting her to go negative on Davis, while Hochul remained above the fray.

Aha, Democrats can respond, you miss the point. Even assuming that your counter-factual is correct (and it's really impossible to prove), this is like blaming a loss in a basketball game on a player who misses his free throws at the end. In truth, there are a ton of missed shots in a basketball game, any of which is technically the "losing shot." In Siena's polling, "Medicare" was the single most important issue, and Hochul overwhelmingly won these voters. Many were Republicans and independents; absent Paul Ryan's budget plan it seems unlikely these voters would have "crossed over," and Davis becomes irrelevant.

And so it goes, interminably. I think the results are close enough that you can read into them whatever you want. Even John Kerry managed to get 43 percent of the vote in the district in a decent Republican year, while Davis managed 44 percent in 2004. In other words, it is true that Hochul's showing is above the Democratic "floor" in the district for a competitive candidate. At the same time, she didn't overperform that floor by so much that we can write off the quirky features of the race.

Rather than try to sort this out, I think there is a larger point to be made about these special elections. It really is futile to read too much into them, regardless of what happens. Consider the predictive power of recent competitive special elections:

HI-01 (May 22, 2010): Charles Djou emerged victorious in an odd three-way race, winning 39.4 percent of the vote. The fact that he had run eight points behind Bush's 2004 showing didn't portend much for national Republicans in the fall.

PA-12 (May 18, 2010): This was the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain. Many therefore took the special election to replace Democratic representative John Murtha as a leading indicator for Republican chances in the fall. Chris Cillizza called it a "must-win for Republicans who have to prove they can emerge victorious in seats like this one . . . to make a reasonable case that the majority is in play this fall." Amy Walters, then with the Hotline, observed that "If [Republicans] can't win the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall?"

Democrat Mark Critz didn't just win that election, he beat his opponent by seven points. Critz even won again in the November, but it didn't matter, as Republicans won most of the other competitive elections in the state.

NY-23 (Nov. 3, 2009): Nov. 3, 2009 was a rough night for Democrats overall. The lone bright spot came in upstate New York, where Democrats captured this district in another three-way race. Parts of the district hadn't been represented by a Democrat since before the Civil War, and Democrats tried to contend that, in terms of control of Congress, this was the race with the most bearing on national politics.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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