Why Democrats keep winning special elections

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Republicans across the country were shaken this week when Democrat Patty Schachtner won a special election in a rural Wisconsin district that President Trump won by 17 points. In a tweet after the polls closed, Gov. Scott Walker (R) called the results “a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.”

The race, and others like it since Trump’s inauguration, should sound alarm bells for Republicans across the country. Schachtner’s victory was just the latest special election where Democratic voters showed up to the polls at higher rates than Republicans.

Schachtner took 12,139 votes in Tuesday’s election, about a third of the total vote that the last Democratic candidate in the district won. But her Republican opponent, state Rep. Adam Jarchow, took 9,865 votes — just 11 percent of the total the last Republican incumbent won. 

That difference in drop-off, pollsters and voter targeting experts say, is the result of the advantage that Democrats now have when it comes to voter enthusiasm — a gap that might be a harbinger of major Democratic gains in this fall’s midterm elections. 

Pollsters routinely measure how enthusiastic voters are about upcoming elections. This year, those surveys have found a gap between an energized Democratic base and a comparatively demoralized Republican electorate. 

The dozens of special elections that have occurred since Trump took office indicate the enthusiasm gap is real: Compared with prior elections, Democratic voters have shown up at higher rates in ordinarily low-turnout special elections than Republicans have. 

In the last year, states have conducted 98 special elections for legislative seats, ranging from a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama to state House races in New Hampshire. Democrats have flipped 16 of those seats — including the race in Alabama, where Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in a generation. Republicans have won only three formerly Democratic-held seats, in Louisiana, Mississippi and Massachusetts. 

Political strategists caution that special elections are different than regular elections. Turnout is lower, and the outcomes are often dominated by factors outside the norm.

But in special elections during the Trump era, a clear pattern has emerged. Of the 98 special legislative elections over the last year, 37 were held in districts that were contested by both parties both in the specials and in the last regularly scheduled election. In 27 of those 37 seats, Democrats have seen their vote shares increase. 

Sometimes, the Democratic advantage has been sufficient to flip formerly Republican-held seats. 

In a Washington state Senate special election held in November, the Democratic candidate won 4,600 more votes than the Democrat who ran in the same district in 2016. The Republican candidate won 3,600 fewer votes than her predecessor claimed in 2016, a 14-point drop-off.

Oklahoma Democrats won a state House district in Norman even though their candidate received only 44 percent of the number of votes the previous Democrat had won. But the Republican candidate won just 19 percent of the vote the previous incumbent had claimed, a 25-point difference that handed Democrats a rare win in the reddest of states. 

“Democrats are fired up, and this is pretty good evidence of it,” said Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican strategist. “I don’t know that it means Republicans are depressed or down, I just think it means that Democrats are fired up.” 

The difference in drop-off rates have not translated to Democratic wins everywhere, even when they are massive. In Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, Democrat Jon Ossoff won 125,517 votes, 600 more votes than the Democratic candidate received in the 2016 elections. Republican Karen Handel won about 65,000 fewer votes than her predecessor, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — but the Republican drop-off wasn’t significant enough to cost Handel the seat. 

Democrats also turned out at much higher rates than Republicans in special elections in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina — all races Republicans won.

The race to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s seat in Alabama also showed a massive enthusiasm gap. Analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic voter targeting firm, showed African-American voters turned out at higher rates than white voters — especially African-American women. Black voters accounted for nearly 30 percent of the total statewide vote, up from 24 percent in the 2016 presidential contest, enough to elect Jones to the Senate. 

“Black Democrats, especially black Democratic women, were clearly engaged and motivated,” said Tom Bonier, TargetSmart’s CEO. “While at the same time Republicans, already seeing demoralization seep in among the more moderate wings of the party due to Trump’s unpopularity, saw a huge drop in motivation as Roy Moore just became too unpalatable for a significant share of Republicans.” 

Whether the Democratic enthusiasm gap continues into the 2018 midterm elections remains to be seen, Bonier cautioned. But the raw voter data backs up public polling that shows Democrats enjoy a significant edge. 

A Pew Research Center survey released this week shows 69 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say they are “looking forward” to the midterm elections. In contrast, just 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters say they are eager to vote in November.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast with the last two midterm elections, when Republicans won dozens of Democratic-held House seats and hundreds of state legislative seats. In 2010, Republicans held an 18-point advantage in Pew surveys; in 2014, GOP voters were more likely to look forward to the midterms than Democrats by a 12-point margin.

Trump is almost certainly a factor. A third of voters said they see their vote in the midterms as a vote against the sitting president — a higher level than the number of voters who said they were voting against George W. Bush in the 2006 midterms (31 percent), or Barack Obama in 2010 (20 percent) or 2014 (26 percent).

Other polls have showed a similar enthusiasm gap favoring the Democrats. Surveys released this week by the Economist, Reuters and Quinnipiac University all show Democrats leading generic ballot tests by five to 11 points, margins that worry Republicans tasked with maintaining the party’s House and Senate majorities later this year.

“You can’t make up on turnout what you’ve lost on message,” Bolger said. “You can have a great turnout program, but if voters are down on you, it doesn’t make a difference. You’re still going to lose.” 

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Karen Handel Roy Moore Tom Price
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