On Tuesday, New York’s 19th district shocked the political world and forced pundits of all stripes to reconsider some of their long-held assumptions about the political dynamics of the 2022 midterm cycle.
Despite being outspent, trailing in his party’s own internal polls, and having to contest a Biden-won swing seat amid an ostensibly-hostile national environment, Democrat Pat Ryan prevailed over GOP frontrunner Marc Molinaro.
This article will first examine why the NY-19 upset occurred and how it relates to Democratic overperformances in other post-Dobbs special elections. It will then search the historical record in an attempt to analyze what bearing, if any, the latest returns could have on this November’s elections.
HISTORICAL EXPECTATIONS – BIG SHOES TO FILL
One of the fundamental principles of American politics suggests that parties occupying the White House take hits during midterm cycles. The scale of any loss endured by the President’s party usually corresponds to his approval rating. Historical data show that most chief executives bleed popularity to varying degrees between their inaugurations and subsequent midterm general elections.
Declines in incumbent popularity tend to result from a desire for administrative change on behalf of the so-called out-party, the faction of the losing presidential nominee from the preceding election. Outside pressure on an executive’s party can become particularly visible when the nation is weathering complex events, like recessions or wars.
Usually, midterms tend to rely more on turnout manipulation than on persuasion. This means that instead of converting a significant amount of opponents to their side, the out-party often simply uses the executive’s unpopularity to imbue their base of voters with enthusiasm. That task is made easier when low approval ratings generate apathy among the presidential party’s electorate.
Since Abraham Lincoln’s administration in 1862, the presidential party has almost always lost House seats in midterms. The average net gain for out-parties in the lower chamber during that timeframe is actually a double-digit figure, suggesting that waves are the norm rather than the exception. In thirteen instances, midterm cycles saw the House change hands.
The party occupying the White House gained House seats on just three occasions during the last century: 1934, 1998, and 2002. Each of these elections is considered an outlier with regard to the historical pattern of midterm results, but for specific reasons.
In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, voters showed their approval of FDR’s New Deal agenda by retaining and expanding the Democratic House majority. Political scientists frequently debate the presumed causes of the ’98 and ’02 anomalies, but most chalk those cycles up to President Clinton’s backfired impeachment and President Bush the Younger’s response to the 9/11 attacks, respectively.
Keeping the above historical evidence in mind suggests that 2022 has big shoes to fill if its results are to deviate from the norm. An outright Democratic gain in the House this cycle is highly unlikely, even if Republican fortunes continue to decline, so an electoral success for President Biden’s party would probably instead take the form of preventing the GOP from amassing a large and effective majority.
HOW THE BALL GOT ROLLING – A NOTE ON THE GENERIC BALLOT
Predicting the partisan lean of a midterm national environment, the factor that often has the biggest impact on post-election House composition, is an inherently-difficult task. Individual metrics like candidate quality, fundraising, and race-oriented polls help pundits analyze specific states and districts, but do little to highlight overarching trends.
To cut through ambiguity and regional variance, especially when forecasting the nation’s lower chamber, pundits rely heavily on generic ballot averages. These data come from polls that ask voters whether they would prefer Democrats or Republicans to control Congress.
The aforementioned approval decline that hits most presidents ahead of midterm cycles can also correspond to a reduction in support for his or her party on the generic ballot. This phenomenon is traditionally used by analysts to determine the state and directionality of national environments when a presidential election is not topping the ticket.
Courtesy: House Generic Ballot Average, 538
Republicans took the lead on the generic ballot in the final weeks of 2021, right around the time that the party concluded a successful election cycle that saw Glenn Youngkin flip Virginia’s Governorship. President Biden’s approval rating had been declining since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that August, well in advance of November.
After materializing, the GOP’s lead in the survey average continued to rise during the late spring and summer. Republican momentum seemed to hold firm as Biden’s popularity reached record lows and the world’s economic future grew increasingly-uncertain.
But the bottom began to fall out for Republicans about two months after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which removed abortion’s constitutionally-protected status. That is not to say that the unpopular court decision and its repercussions across the nation were the only factors behind recent Democratic gains on the generic ballot, though they likely got the ball rolling.
THE POST-DOBBS SPECIALS VS TX-34
Including Tuesday’s races in New York’s 19th and 23rd districts, there have been five post-Dobbs special elections*. Democrats overperformed in each seat relative to Biden’s 2020 margin, leading multiple forecasters to claim that the long-standing Republican national environment had in fact given way to a neutral one.
Courtesy of Split Ticket (D & R shares combined in TX-34)
While it is never safe to extrapolate too much from highly-variable by-elections, the collective shift from the most recent returns has posed a stark contrast to the June results from TX-34, a marginal-Biden seat in rightward-trending South Texas that Republican Mayra Flores flipped after Democrat Filemon Vela tendered his resignation.
538 analyst Nathaniel Rakich wrote more about this subject, suggesting, like Split Ticket, that while the latest special election results do portend well for Democrats at the moment, they do not ensure an ahistorical victory for Team Blue in November.
*Alaska’s ranked-choice special election is excluded from the data table because final returns will not be tabulated until August 31st*
NEW YORK’S 19TH – RESULTS
Pat Ryan won his special election for the same reason that Democratic candidates in Minnesota and Nebraska outperformed fundamentals: formidable turnout from well-educated, high-propensity voters in populated counties with large Democratic bases.
In the case of the 19th district, the most important county was Ulster, which accounted for 29% of all votes cast in the special compared to a lower 26.5% figure in the 2020 general. Just as it punched above its weight in terms of voter turnout, Ulster also shifted 3 points leftward from Biden’s previous baseline. Given that Ryan is the County’s Executive, his overperformance makes sense.
Ryan’s victory also stemmed from Columbia County, which moved leftward compared to 2020 fundamentals while simultaneously accounting for 12% of votes cast in the special compared to just 9% in the presidential election two years ago. Shift directionality was less predictable in the district’s smaller counties.
Despite losing, Molinaro’s electoral record as Dutchess County Executive undoubtedly kept Tuesday’s race closer than it would likely have been had a generic Republican been on the ballot. The Dutchess portion of the district, which voted for Biden by 4.4 in 2020, broke for Molinaro by almost 8 points. Republicans have not carried the whole county at the presidential level since 2004. Proportional turnout in the district’s second most significant county also rose from 17 to 19%, proving that candidate quality can still influence margins in competitive House races.
HISTORICAL MIDTERM SPECIAL ELECTIONS – HOW PREDICTIVE
To provide some historical context regarding the predictive power of special elections for the U.S. House, data from three selected midterms will be examined. No two election cycles ever operate under the same dynamics, but there is actually a surprisingly-large amount of timeless continuity in American politics. Analyzing the duration and strength of trends indicated by historical specials could therefore help define exactly what the collective returns from all five post-Dobbs special elections mean for November, if anything.
*Split Ticket will consider midterm cycle timeframes to include both the year in which the November general election occurs as well as the year preceding it. The 2022 cycle, for instance, would run from 2021 to 2022.*
*All specials not contested between one Republican and one Democrat are excluded*
During the 1974 cycle, all of the special election results leading up to November confirmed strong Democratic momentum that would eventually manifest itself as a 49 seat-net gain for the party. At the time, the Republican brand had been heavily damaged by Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon.
One notable special election occurred in Michigan’s 5th district, a seat encompassing the Grand Rapids area that had long been held by Gerald Ford, the President at the time. His seat flipped to Democrat Richard Vander Veen in what became a highly-symbolic result. Another impactful race took place in Pennsylvania’s 12th, a seat based in the southwestern half of the Keystone state that narrowly elected John Murtha. He would go on to represent the district until his death in 2010, becoming an institution.
*It should be noted that the shifts were exceptionally high because of the large scale of the 1972 Republican presidential victory.*
In 1994, Republicans had everything going for them. President Bill Clinton was unpopular and considered by many political analysts to be nothing short of a lame-duck waiting to be replaced by his own party in ’96. Almost all of the cycle’s special elections presaged the marked momentum that would work in the GOP’s favor that November, allowing Republicans to take back the House for the first time in nearly half a century.
The last special election on this list is perhaps the most interesting of them all, as it was perceived as a symbolic victory for the GOP. Kentucky’s 2nd district had been held by parochial Democrat William Natcher since 1953. During his tenure, he had not missed a single roll call vote. The long-time incumbent had also been able to chair the omnipotent Appropriations Committee for over a year before his death.
*The presence of Ross Perot on the 1992 presidential ballot pulled votes from Republicans and Democrats, making the comparison margins listed above less useful than usual, but still instructive*
Leading up to the 2018 general election, the Democrats came close to winning multiple special elections in otherwise-Republican seats. Strong shifts in their direction foreshadowed a favorable environment that led to a net gain of 40 seats that fall. GA-06 and PA-18 were two particularly important races.
In the 6th, Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a competitive race against Karen Handel, a inveterate Republican figure in Peach State politics. His bold start paved the way for a victorious 2020 Senate campaign. Democrats would go on to flip the 6th, a seat which had rapidly moved leftward presidentially after 2012, with Lucy McBath in the fall of 2018.
An even more impressive Democratic performance was posted in Pennsylvania’s heavily-Republican 18th district, based in the Mon Valley south of Pittsburgh. Moderate Democrat Conor Lamb managed to narrowly defeat troubled GOP candidate Rick Saccone before securing a safer seat to run in that November as a result of mid-decade redistricting.
EXPECTATIONS FOR THE FALL
When it comes to handicapping the House at Split Ticket, the latest series of averaged special election results and generic ballot polling data suggest that 2022’s originally-strong Republican environment has deteriorated into one that either slightly favors the GOP or is altogether neutral. While we hesitate to read *too* much into recent developments, there is currently plenty of evidence to confirm that a change in the national mood has occurred. Whether it is temporary or long-lasting remains to be seen.
One of the most important character traits of any forecaster must be caution. For that reason, Split Ticket feels obligated to touch on a few common caveats to the claim that Republican momentum has decreased enough to impact the GOP’s chances in November.
The first of the three equivocations, and perhaps the most important, deals with a complex concept: turnout dynamics. As has been repeatedly discussed in Split Ticket’s past pieces on the House, a credible argument can be made that Democrats have exceeded expectations in the post-Dobbs special elections, at least in part, because their base counties in each district accounted for larger shares of the total vote than they normally do. Read more about this here.
Another part of this line of reasoning holds that, because of correlations between level of educational attainment and voter propensity, the off-cycle Democratic coalition is inherently better-desinged to contest special elections.
That part of the argument is certainly up for debate, though it is not hard to see proliferated, disproportionate turnout among enthusiastic Democrats, especially women, in counties like Ulster, Lancaster, Olmstead, and Tompkins, boosting shares for Democratic candidates post-Dobbs. Republicans typically add to this claim by alluding to expectations of higher GOP turnout in general elections this November, perhaps enough to mete Democratic enthusiasm and force a neutral environment.
The second caveat of note deals with out-party improvement in the generic ballot polling average between early fall and November itself. This trend is sometimes referred to as the Labor Day bump. Proponents of the theory validly point to each midterm cycle since 2006, all of which witnessed polling declines of some degree for the presidential party in the final months before November.
If these shifts were to occur in 2022, the +0.5 Democratic lead on the 538 GB average would be expected to move to around +2 for the Republicans. Looking at it another way, though, there is a *possibility* that this midterm will be rife with enough post-Dobbs anomalies to buck the bump tradition.
A third and final stipulation of note deals with President Biden’s approval rating, which has risen in recent days after months of record-breaking lows. Assuming that Biden’s unpopularity remains at a stable, albeit low, position, or perhaps declines further, serious questions must be raised about how much of a drag his negative ratings will be on Democratic House candidates.
The President’s average approval rating is rising through 41.5% as of this writing, putting it well below the 45% figure that former President Obama posted right before his party’s massive 2010 House losses. Split Ticket is not suggesting that that discrepancy is indicative of a blue mirage. It is merely pointing out that many voters who dislike Biden still appear willing to back his party for other offices.
Because Split Ticket has begun to reassess its priors to conform with a potentially-neutral environment, multiple House ratings changes are now merited. Our current board, last updated in July, already puts Republicans at 218 seats – enough to take a technical majority in the chamber without any Tossups picked.
While the GOP is still comfortably favored to win the House, current assumptions regarding the potential scale of that victory have changed. The latest House Temperature Check will be released on Monday with dozens of changes, none of which is expected to be earth-shattering.
All results utilized in Split Ticket articles should only be considered current up to the writing date unless prior certification by a proper board of elections has been noted.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org