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The big political news today is Tuesday’s Democratic win in a special congressional election.
The big political question today is what that win tells us about November.
The special election took place to fill a vacancy in New York’s 19th District, and it looks like the winner is Pat Ryan, a Democratic county executive who — as of this writing — has 51.1% of the vote with 92% of precincts reporting. The networks and professional analysts have all called the race for him.
Ryan will hold that seat for only a few months because the current iteration of the 19th District will disappear in November, when the latest round of redistricting takes effect. That makes Tuesday’s victory largely a “symbolic” one, as HuffPost’s Daniel Marans noted in his write-up.
But it’s a pretty important symbol.
The 19th covers a swath of mostly suburban and rural country in the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions, north of New York City and south of Albany. It is a classic bellwether district, having voted narrowly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and then narrowly for Joe Biden in 2020.
Along the way, it sent a Republican to Congress in 2016 and elected a Democrat two years later, as part of the 2018 “blue wave.” The assumption going into this special election was that Biden’s poor approval ratings would translate into another switch, with the district sending a Republican to Congress once again.
The GOP nominee was Marc Molinaro, a popular local politician and former gubernatorial candidate who was focusing his campaign on inflation and crime, problems he blamed on the Biden administration. It seemed like a winning strategy — until June, when the Supreme Court ended the right to abortion in America with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Ryan made abortion rights almost the primary focus of his campaign, using the Dobbs decision to paint Republicans as extremists and tying it to broader themes of freedom.
“How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women’s bodies?” he said in a 30-second ad touting his background as a West Point graduate and his service in Iraq. “That’s not the country I fought to defend.”
Ryan also emphasized the importance of making a statement to the nation, telling The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel that “this has to be a national referendum on Roe. It’s our first chance to send this message, that the country is not going to tolerate this erosion of our fundamental rights.”
The message has been sent. But it’s still only August. The future of abortion rights in many states ― and maybe the nation as a whole ― will depend on what happens in the midterm elections.
What, if anything, does this special election result tell us about that?
It’s impossible to be sure. But here are a few possibilities, based on conversations with half a dozen pollsters and analysts.
The Case For Democratic Optimism
The biggest reason to think the New York outcome says something about November is that it’s not an isolated event.
It’s the latest in a series of developments that are consistent with a Dobbs backlash sufficient to push the midterms in a more Democratic direction ― from surveys showing Americans disapproving of the Dobbs ruling to those showing Democrats pulling even with Republicans in the generic congressional ballot and on overall enthusiasm.
Small donations to Democrats have surged, while small donations to Republicans have declined ― both since Roe v. Wade was overturned. And then of course there was the resounding defeat of the anti-abortion ballot measure in Kansas, a state with a long history of anti-abortion activism.
“It’s not as if the numbers are coming out of nowhere,” Natalie Jackson, director of research at PRRI, told HuffPost.
Behind all of this is a logical explanation for why the usual midterm dynamics, with the president’s party losing seats, might not be in play this time.
“Normally in midterms, voters of the party in power don’t show up because they are complacent — their party is in control, after all,” Sean McElwee, founding executive director of Data for Progress, told HuffPost. “But Dobbs has made Democrats feel a profound sense of loss aversion — something they did not feel in 2010 and 2014 and has helped galvanize more turnout.”
“When people are dissatisfied, they want to take it out on the party in power,” said Danny Franklin, partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive. “But who is in power is a more complex thing, or can be a more complex thing, than people assume. When a conservative Supreme Court is making decisions that are affecting women across the country, and over objections of the White House, they are the ones in power. The reason abortion is a powerful election issue is that it scrambles people’s sense of who is in power.”
Franklin went on to say that the abortion issue stirs up fears many Americans feel, about losing losing control over their bodies and lives, that are especially strong after living in a pandemic for more than two years.
“Abortion would always be a big issue, for its own sake,” Franklin said. “But there’s a way right now in which people are being robbed of the ability to make decisions in their own lives, and this plays right into it ― it taps into an assessment and an anger that people have been feeling more globally about their lives for three years.”
“You have a bunch of Supreme Court justices and a bunch of Christian nationalists saying you can’t have control over your own body ― and people are thinking, nope, no way, I don’t want that,” Franklin said.
And this fear may not be limited to traditional Democrats. Anna Greenberg, senior partner at the polling and strategy firm GQR, said she’s seeing opposition to Dobbs even among some nonevangelical Trump voters.
“I was doing focus groups the other night — there were three Trump voters, all women, all pissed off about the Dobbs decision,” she said.
The Case For Republican Optimism
But the pollsters who spoke to HuffPost also had strong cautionary notes, starting with the fact that it was a relatively low-turnout election, as special elections usually are. Turnout is sure to be a lot higher in November, and quite possibly Republicans who didn’t show up at the polls this time will show up at the polls then.
“It’s clear that the Dobbs decision has eliminated some or all of the Democratic enthusiasm deficits from earlier in the cycle,” said Patrick Ruffini, founding partner of Echelon Insights. “Now the question is whether this will persist outside of a low-turnout special election environment more dominated by college-educated voters, the voters most likely to say abortion is more important to their vote.”
He went on to note that respondents in their surveys are still citing inflation as the No. 1 concern, with only 27% saying it was abortion rights. “The question becomes how much more juice can Democrats squeeze from this 27%,” Ruffini said.
“Trump made pollsters part of the swamp. We were part of the problem, part of the same establishment he was trying to overturn.”
Lurking behind this is the ongoing fear that all the recent polling favorable to Democrats is overestimating Democratic support — or, more likely, underestimating Republican support. That is what happened in both 2016 and 2020, when surveys were systematically missing a cadre of Trump voters.
Partly that was because of nonresponse ― that is, Trump voters not responding to polling inquiries. “Trump made pollsters part of the swamp,” Franklin said. “We were part of the problem, part of the same establishment he was trying to overturn.”
Pollsters typically find ways to adjust or account for voters, often by extrapolating from whatever small samples they can get. But those methods don’t work when these voters don’t answer inquiries at all — or aren’t even on call lists, because they’ve never voted before.
“There’s no doubt that some of it has to do with Trump voters not taking surveys and not participating,” Greenberg said. “But some of it also has to be that they were not in our sampling frame to begin with.”
“You can’t weight your way out of this problem,” Ruffini added.
Ruffini made clear he thinks recent polling that shows improved prospects for Democrats is picking up something real. The unknown, he explained, is the baseline of what voters really thought before the recent shifts.
“To me,” he said, “the question is not whether the recent Democratic gains are illusory, but that the polls are systematically mismeasuring the political environment regardless of who’s up or down at the moment.”
The Importance Of What Happens Next
The pollsters all described adjustments they are trying to make, so that their surveys account for possible errors and miscounts ― everything from zeroing in on differences between rural and suburban areas within the same district to trying to get a better sense of who has voted in the past.
They also warned that a small-turnout election in August has limited predictive power about a full election in November, especially with an ever-changing news cycle and Republicans recalibrating their strategy to account for what looks like a more challenging environment.
Example: A campaign fund controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is about to spend more than $150 million propping up faltering Republican Senate candidates, as HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard wrote about today.
But of course Democrats can adapt too — and surely will. And thanks to the New York result, they can be confident they are in a stronger position than anybody imagined even a few weeks ago.
“Even if we assume that polls are missing some small segment of mostly Republican voters, the fact remains that Democrats have gained some ground,” Jackson said. “We shouldn’t necessarily assume this means much for November — there is still a lot of time left, and some very close races to watch. But the Democrats have a little momentum going right now.”