The future of the Obama presidency could be decided on Tuesday by barely more than 100,000 voters. If the most recent polls prove correct, Democrat David Weprin will lose a special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner to Republican Bob Turner in New York’s Ninth Congressional District. It’s a crucial bellwether that will show whether President Obama can hope to win in 2012.
Sound crazy? More likely, it sounds familiar. That’s because just four months ago, many of the same pundits flogging this theory were busy hawking another one: if Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin in a special election in New York’s 26th District, it would prove that voters were furious about Paul Ryan’s drastic proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid and were ready to flock back to Democrats after a rough 2010 midterm. Hochul won, and yet somehow we’re hearing it all over again. And of course that was just a year after Democrat Bill Owens won a special election in the heavily Republican 23rd District. That race? You guessed it: a bellwether.
Crazy, familiar, promising, bleak—there are plenty of ways to react to the New York special election. Sadly, those looking for a clear predictor will be confounded, but they can find some clues about the future.
Tuesday’s election has garnered national attention for several reasons, not all related to Weiner’s scandalous photographs. The district, which includes parts of the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, is heavily Democratic but gradually growing redder—Weiner won it by only 22 points in 2010, having won the two previous elections by an 86-point margin and without contest, respectively. This time around, the sputtering economy and massive dysfunction in government have many voters hopping mad at Washington.
When Weiner resigned in June, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Democrats would be able to hold the seat. But recent polls have showed the race tightening and tightening, until two polls in the last few days showed Turner leading, 47–41 and 50–44. Suddenly there was national interest, and both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee began devoting people and money to the race in the sprint to the finish.
If Turner manages to pull off the upset, it won’t necessarily make a huge difference in Congress. Republicans already control the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin, so one seat won’t make much difference, and the Ninth District is widely expected to be eliminated in redistricting—meaning the winner on Tuesday will be the last person to represent the area as currently constituted.
But it could still be bad news for Obama. In a paper published in May 2010, political scientist Thomas Brunell and graduate student David Smith, both of the University of Texas at Dallas, studied special elections between 1900 and 2008. They found that when Republicans have a net gain in special elections between any two cycles—that is, when they win more seats between two elections—they end up picking up seats in the House during the following cycle two thirds of the time (the correlation is even higher for Democrats). So a Turner win would seem to predict a larger Republican majority in Congress come 2012. That would surely be bad news for a president who is already finding it impossible to move legislation through a hostile House. On the other hand, the Hochul election predicted just the opposite result, although Brunell says the closer a special election is to the following general election, the more accurate a predictor it is. And several special elections since Brunell and Smith’s paper have bucked the trend. Despite Owens’s victory in November 2009 and Democrat Mark Critz’s special-election triumph in May 2010, Republicans have crushed Democrats, dealing the party its worst losses in more than a half-century.
Whether a Democratic loss would be a bad sign for Obama’s personal reelection chances is less clear. Political scientists Keith Gaddie, Charles Bullock, and Scott Buchanan argued in a 1999 paper that special elections were largely governed by characteristics of the electorate and the candidates, concluding, “Special election outcomes that change partisan control can be viewed as the product of normal electoral circumstances and not referenda on the administration.”
And the on-the-ground factors are indeed unusual. Many commentators have focused on the question of Israel. It’s an important one in a district that’s one third Jewish, and some American Jews have criticized Obama for not being friendly enough to the country. But in a Siena poll conducted Sept. 6 to 8, only 7 percent of respondents said the candidates’ position on Israel was the most important factor in their vote. Handling of the economy and views on entitlement programs were far more important.
“I think it’s a perfect storm for the Republicans,” says Steven Greenberg, a pollster at Siena College, who notes that although voters are widely satisfied with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, three quarters say the United States is on the wrong track. “Voters are very upset with Washington, angry with the federal government. And who’s in charge? A Democrat.”
New York Democrats are happy to adopt this line and paint the bad polling as bad luck—angry voters lashing out at a bad economy. Referring to Hochul’s win, New York Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs says, “The Republicans walked into a buzzsaw right before that election with some of their wilder ideas [about entitlements]. Here, the buzzsaw is turning. The economy is stalled, and the progress in Washington is not what people would like.”
Despite the bleak polling for Weprin, Democrats seemed optimistic and Republicans tempered as Election Day approached. On Monday, Democrats said they hoped that strong political operations on the ground combined with low turnout overall could put Weprin out ahead—the party has far more established machines in Brooklyn and Queens, traditional Democratic strongholds, than the GOP. In addition, the Siena poll showed Weprin’s support as weak among Democrats, suggesting those voters could be easier to convince in the campaign’s waning hours than independents or Republicans.
One Democratic operative downplayed the importance of any loss, saying the 2012 election would be decided on different factors. That’s a decidedly alternative attitude than the one Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, expressed back in May, when he said the Democratic win in the 26th District “gave voice tonight to the growing national consensus that Republican leadership has failed.”
Meanwhile, a Republican operative closely involved with the Turner campaign described the mood in his camp as “cautious.” He said the Republicans saw the election as a choice between a good outcome and a better outcome. Even a close Turner loss would be a moral victory to have struck so close to the Democratic heartland, and would highlight how upset Americans are at Obama’s policy. “I think the bellwether’s already rung,” he said. “The reason it’s as close as it is, is Obama, and the fact that Democrats had to spend half a million dollars is huge.”
With the race neck-and-neck and polls within the margin of error, it’s impossible to predict the outcome of the election. One safe prediction, though: whichever side wins will waste no time assuring the nation that their victory is a bellwether.