As the special election season winds down, the result is something that everyone probably should have seen coming, but seemingly no one did. Every special election, without fail, stayed with the incumbent. And every special election, without fail, had a significant swing to the left (depending how you measure it.)
— FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) June 22, 2017
Ordinarily, this would be a cause for celebration among democrats and significant worry among the GOP. However, the democrats failed to learn a key lesson from the 2016 election: Lower expectations. There’s a reason Trumps debate performances, which were objectively not very great, didn’t cost him the election: He went into them sandbagged by the world as someone who wouldn’t be able to debate a chair. Articles about how he had ‘zero’ debate prep and lacked the stamina to debate for more than 20 minutes were abound. The same goes for these special elections. If the democrats had gone into them saying ‘we are probably going to lose, but we are going to fight like hell,’ then these close calls would be a rallying cry, a huge win for morale and for the ‘resistance.’ Instead, they are fairly demoralizing losses.
So what can we learn from the GA-6 election? Well something we’ve been pushing over and over again: when you have increased turnout in a heavily red or blue area, its going to favor the red or blue candidate. Look at the South Carolina special election. As tempting as this is to say this is a victory of progressivism and a rejection of Trumpism, the real story of South Carolina is one of shockingly low turnout. Something around 18% of voters turned out for the special election there, and as such, Norman only won by about 2000 votes. But, the low turnout was not evenly spread. While GOP vote count was down 73% from the 2016 election, Dem vote count was only down 60%. So it would appear that the enthusiasm and energy among democrats right now is significantly higher than it is among the GOP. This enthusiasm gap almost won them the seat.
So why didn’t this enthusiasm gap translate over to GA-6? Well the increased media attention and huge ad buys served to bolster turnout on both sides, and helped narrow the enthusiasm gap. Imagine if the roles had been reversed. Hillary had won, shes incredibly popular, and there is something of a tea party resurgence in the field. You’re a voter in, say, Massachusetts, and there is a highly heated election going on. There are southerners getting bused in, going door to door, trying to get you to change your vote. Huge amounts of money is pouring in from Idaho, Utah, and Missouri for the GOP. Your phone is getting blown up by republicans trying to get you to vote for the GOP candidate. This election is becoming not just about the candidate, but about us vs them party politics. Now you might have been thinking you weren’t a fan of Hillary, and you were planning to stay home but now that you’re seeing all this attention and its triggering a rally around your team moment. Then to top it off, the GOP candidate doesn’t even live there. All of a sudden, this isn’t a referendum on Hillary, this is your local guy vs out of town interests. Its hard not to see how the incumbent candidate wins in that case.
At the end of the day, the GOP saved off a catastrophe by eking out narrow wins, and this will likely buy Trump some political capital. I don’t think it means very much, considering how the one high turnout election which was closest to mimicking how a midterm election might turn out ended up with a republican win, and if that holds up then the GOP will likely hold the house and the senate. But if this enthusiasm gap holds up, then its possible the Dems get a narrow majority in the 2018 midterms, only time will tell.
On a side note, we caught some significant flack for being the only one to shop a Handel victory (until Trafalgar released and backed us up), hopefully Harry Enten, Daily Kos, and any others who were doubting us see that our models are able to stand the test of time. We might be conducing a new poll on immigration issues or healthcare in the coming weeks, but if not we will be back for the next round of special elections coming up. Be sure to follow our twitter feed for updates, and feel free to email us or tweet at us with suggestions.