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By Jay Cost

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Five Reasons NY-23 Doesn't Tell Us Anything

Wow. The pundit class is in full swing, interpreting the meaning of NY-23. "What's it say about Obama's administration?" "What's it say about the state of the Republican Party?" "What's it say for the upcoming health care debate?" So many questions. I'll do my best to answer them, each in turn.

Nothing, nothing, and nothing!

I'm sorry to disappoint (I'm not sorry!). I know we're all excited to have a dramatic election to ponder - so I hate to be the party pooper (I relish being the party pooper!). No doubt the twists and turns have been dramatic. But sometimes drama has a deeper meaning - like in Hamlet. And sometimes it doesn't - like in the Young and the Restless.

This is the Young and the Restless. There are few, if any, broader inferences to draw from this race about the national political climate.

Here are five reasons why:

(1) Dede Scozzafava was selected by the Republican Party in an extraordinary way. This should pour a bucket of cold water on the idea that there is some internal revolution happening in the Republican Party. Most Republican nominees have to go through a primary process in which the "base" evaluates candidates. This did not happen, and that created two big problems: (a) a candidate too moderate for the Republican base was chosen (b) in a process that does not have the legitimacy that primary elections have. If Scozzafava had to compete in a primary, she either would have lost (most likely scenario) or, had she won (less likely), she would have been able to claim a legitimacy that she could not claim. Because most party nominees are chosen by primaries, it means you cannot extrapolate from NY-23 to the broader party.

(2) Dede Scozzafava was a TERRIBLE candidate. Her people called the cops on John McCormack. Seriously. She held a press conference in front of Doug Hoffman's campaign office, and enabled the Conservative Party candidate to produce this lovely bit of free publicity:

Scozzafava Hoffman.jpg

Scozzafava didn't drop out only because Hoffman was on the rise. She dropped out because she was running out of money. I wonder why. Suppose you're a donor to Scozzafava. You're a Snowe-Collins-Specter type Republican, convinced that you're the future of the party and so on and so forth. Still, your money is as hard earned as any buck held by a tea-partier. Are you going to give it to this woman? I doubt it. That's what we call chasing good money after bad.

If Dede Scozzafava was a substantially worse candidate than your average Republican nominee in a competitive race - and she clearly was - then we cannot generalize from her fate to the fate of Snowe-Collins-Specter type nominees.

Incidentally, I don't know why pundits are so obsessed with northeastern Republicans. Hasn't anybody noticed how many seats from the South the GOP has picked up in the last 20 years? That seems to me to be an extraordinarily beneficial tradeoff for the Grand Old Party. The Northeast has been shedding seats decade after decade. In the last thirty years, the Mid-Atlantic region has lost 18 seats. And they're going South - Florida and Texas have picked up 18 seats in the last 30 years. If, in 1976, the Ghost of William McKinley (the quintessential Republican) had been offered the following deal: "Decline in the Northeast but rise in the South, or stay the same in both regions"...wouldn't he have taken the swap? Maybe not at first - but after the Ghost of Mark Hanna had told him all about the upcoming demographic changes in both regions - I bet he would!

Relatedly, it seems to me that the Republican Party - being a party that stretches across all regions of the country - should weigh its attention according to population. And, in that kind of analysis, more focus should be dedicated to fielding good candidates in the Midwest and especially the South than in the Northeast. That's where the most potential pickups for the GOP are. So why so much attention given to the Northeast? (Partial answer: Most people encouraging the GOP to focus on the Northeast rarely if ever vote Republican. E.g. David Axelrod's recent advice for how the Republican Party can build a majority. But that's a column for another day!)

(3) New York has long-standing third party options. One purpose of the New York Conservative Party is to act as a check on the Republican Party. Most states do not have this, and if this race had occurred in, say, Pennsylvania - where there is no such third party - Hoffman would not have had the kind of opportunity he found in the Conservative Party.

This makes a big difference. This was a real three-way race because New York has real third parties. Most states don't. Again, this makes it really hard to generalize from NY-23 to the rest of the country.

(4) Turnout could be really, really low. The NY-20 special election had about 160,000 people vote in it. Compare that to the more than 287,000 who voted in the general election in NY-20 in 2008. The special had just 57% of the turnout that the general had. This makes a huge difference.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that turnout in NY-23 will be 57% of what it was in the 2008 general. That would put it at about 125,000, meaning that you'd need 62,501 votes to win a majority. I'll posit that there are this many potential Hoffman votes in the district and this many potential Owens votes, too! What matters is who actually comes out to vote. That's the dominant factor in low-turnout special elections.

This matters to some extent in general elections, but not nearly as much. Accordingly, it is very difficult to generalize from a special election result to the sentiment of the entire district, let alone the country at large!

(5) The 2010 midterms are a year away. I'll make two observations about many of the pundits tut-tutting about NY-23:

(a) They'll admit that a year is a "lifetime" in politics, but this only ever serves as a C/Y/A cliché rather than a fundamental truth that informs their analysis.

(b) They'll have forgotten about NY-23 a year from now.

A year is a long time in American politics. In November, 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency of the United States. A year prior, he was trailing Hillary Clinton badly and under fire from his own supporters for not wasting his money as HRC was. A year before that, few people even knew who he was. In November, 1991 George H.W. Bush's job approval stood at 62%. A year later a folksy governor from Arkansas had unseated him. In November, 1938 Republicans picked up nearly 100 House seats in the midterm election, and FDR looked to be finished. A (little less than a) year later, Germany invaded Poland and the prospect of world war made FDR the center of the political world once again. In November, 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected in the third consecutive Republican landslide in what really looked to be an enduring majority. A year later...well, you get the idea.


So, am I interested in the results of NY-23? You bet I am. But I'm a political junkie, and I find this stuff highly entertaining. That doesn't mean that it carries with it any particular meaning. You can be entertained by Hamlet and Y & R, but only one of them means anything.

Fellow junkies, I implore you: let's see this contest for what it is - simple, meaningless entertainment - and stop pontificating on its broader implications!

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-Jay Cost