Do the numbers add up for Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania?

Do the numbers add up for Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania?
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As the nation winds its way down that long road to November, we’re entering an election cycle with anticipated voter backlash against President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeath toll in Northern California wildfire rises to 48: authorities Graham backs bill to protect Mueller Denham loses GOP seat in California MORE added to the traditional favoring of the out-of-power party in midterms. Put simply, Republicans could be at a distinct disadvantage in a number of battleground districts.

In Pennsylvania, Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone are vying to fill the open seat in the 18th Congressional District during a special election on Tuesday (with Libertarian Drew Miller as a possible spoiler on the ballot). As with other elections since Donald Trump became president, this race is drawing national attention as a potential harbinger for Democratic fortunes this November.  

But let’s look at the numbers to see how things might play out in this southwestern Pennsylvania district.


As currently drawn, the district is composed 593 voting precincts situated in parts of four counties — though redistricting will change the district after the special election. The district’s population is 704,582 people, only 2 percent of whom are African-American.  Seventy-one percent of residents (500,438) are registered to vote. Democrats hold a majority — 46 percent to 41 percent Republican registrants. The remaining 13 percent are otherwise registered.

On paper, then, Democrats have the advantage. Yet Democratic candidates, at any level, have not fared well with voters in this district for two decades. From 2002 through 2010, Democratic candidates averaged 36 percent of the vote, far less than the 64 percent won by former Republican Rep. Tim MurphyTim MurphyPoll: Lamb has double-digit lead in Pennsylvania House race Jordan weathering political storm, but headwinds remain Saccone loses GOP primary comeback bid in Pa. MORE, whose resignation last year opened the seat. The last time Democrats mounted a challenge to Murphy was in 2012, when Larry Maggi, a Washington County commissioner, won 36 percent of the vote.

From 2000 through 2012, Democratic presidential and gubernatorial candidates did marginally better in this district, averaging 44 percent of the vote. In the past three U.S. Senate races — two of which featured incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyPro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Midterms: The winners and losers Senate GOP beats expectations with expanded majority MORE Jr. — Democrats averaged 47 percent of the vote. However, the Democratic share of the vote has steadily diminished each election cycle. President Trump bested Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — First lady's office pushes for ouster of national security aide | Trump taps retired general as ambassador to Saudis | Mattis to visit border troops | Record number of female veterans to serve in Congress Election Countdown: Lawsuits fly in Florida recount fight | Nelson pushes to extend deadline | Judge says Georgia county violated Civil Rights Act | Biden, Sanders lead 2020 Dem field in poll | Bloomberg to decide on 2020 by February What midterm exit polls tell us about 2020 MORE by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.

Finally, looking at just that portion of the district that is included in Pennsylvania’s 39th House District currently represented by Saccone, Democratic candidates have averaged 41 percent of the vote since 2010, when Saccone first was elected.

All of these numbers indicate that Democratic candidates, even with the wind at their backs, face a difficult climb in this district. Still, recent polling shows an exceptionally close contest for this special election — perhaps within a few points. Any one of myriad factors could swing the election to either candidate. How, then, might Democrat Lamb prevail?

Building on the current political environment, and taking into consideration the attributes of this particular district, Lamb does have a few things in his favor. Unlike recent past races, organized labor has lined up behind him. In addition, he has said in local newspaper interviews that he doesn’t support Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiGraham backs bill to protect Mueller Clyburn says some critics are using race to oppose his leadership bid Congress can unite on global affairs MORE, despite his opponent’s TV ads to the contrary, and Lamb has disavowed restricting automatic weapons. These positions should at least ameliorate any great loss of support among conservative, working-class white voters. But has Lamb translated these advantages into a nuts-and-bolts campaign?

Turnout in special elections is notoriously low and outcomes are hard to predict. Publicity leading to Murphy’s resignation, and activity surrounding this race, might boost turnout somewhat. Yet taking into consideration the lowest turnout figures from past general elections (held during gubernatorial election years), we can project turnout of about 38 percent — similar to the 40 percent who turned out to vote in the high-profile special Senate election in Alabama won by Democrat Doug Jones.

Lamb needs to build vote goals by examining which of these past elections provided the Democratic candidate — congressional, gubernatorial or state Housewith the highest vote.  Doing that math produces a projected Democratic vote of 53 percent, compared to a projected Republican vote of 47 percent. These projections are not out of line with recent poll results and give Lamb both a goal and a framework from which to work.

But with just days remaining in the race, Lamb needs to step up his campaigning. The 274 voting precincts in which a Democratic candidate received at least 45 percent of the vote in past elections are the starting point. Adding municipalities in which a majority of local elected officials are Democrats boosts this to 506 targeted precincts — a considerable number, but again, this is a district that has been hostile to Democratic candidates.

Lamb has waged an aggressive field operation, seeking to identify supporters and persuade undecided voters. If he targets voters in the precincts mentioned above during the campaign’s closing days, he could add critical votes that put him over the top on March 13.

The winner of this election, however, will serve only until the end of this year. Unless a federal court says otherwise, this election will be the last held under the discredited districts recently thrown out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for violating the state constitution. A new 14th  District succeeds this district and, unlike many of the other new districts, does not move discernibly in favor of a Democratic candidate. Ironically, neither Saccone nor Lamb lives in the newly drawn district.

Win or lose, Lamb likely will run in the new, far more hospitable to Democrats, 17th Congressional District. And win or lose, the best that might be said for this special election is that a close race may further fuel Democratic hopes in Pennsylvania, and across the nation, come November.  

David Wassel is an attorney and Democratic political consultant in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.