The Marginal Significance of NY-26

Much has been made of Kathy Hochul’s victory in New York’s 26th congressional district–a district that has elected a Republican since 1970.  Most observers have cited her victory as a “referendum” on the Republican Party and Paul Ryan’s proposed budget (in particular the proposed changes to Medicare).  I have no doubt that Medicare played some role in the electoral outcome.  But did the issue play a vital role or a marginal role?  If it’s the latter, then the “major implications” being trumpeted in the media are overblown.

One critical factor about this race has been wholly ignored in virtually all media accounts–the fact that an independent and tea-party backed candidate, Jack Davis, stole 9% of the vote.  If we allot these votes, assuming they are conservatives, to the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, she wins NY-26 with 52% of the vote (to Hochul’s 47%).

In searching for overblown media anecdotes to point to contemptuously, I came across an excellent article article by Charlie Cook, the prognosticator of prognosticators (see here). Cook makes essentially the same point, albeit with better prose and more validity:

To be honest, I take a perverse pleasure in watching a multitude of well-intentioned political observers weigh in on the “great significance” of this upstate House race to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of GOP Rep. Chris Lee.

In addition to other things, I have heard them talk about what it portends for the Medicare issue and the 2012 elections for the House nationwide.

It’s all nonsense.

The vast majority of congressional elections are effectively fought between one Democrat, one Republican and perhaps a mishmash of unknown independent and third-party candidates that rarely make a difference in the outcome of the election.

In this Republican-leaning 26th District fight, there is one Democrat, one Republican and, oh, yes, a wealthy, abortion-rights, economic protectionist, former Republican, former Democrat, current tea partier, who ran for Congress in 2004, 2006 and 2008—spending a total of $5.2 million of his own money—and has already spent at least another $1.7 million in this race for Congress.

If anyone can find a race next year with a similar configuration, be my guest and apply the “lessons learned” from this race to that one. But implying that the outcome of this race portends anything about any conventional race next year amounts to cheap spin and drive-by “analysis” of the most superficial kind, which is sadly becoming all too prevalent in Washington. There are a lot of folks in D.C. who would be well-served switching to decaf.

I agree with Cook’s central point–that the media has been too quick to characterize this race (see also Jonathan Bernstein’s excellent post or John Sides’ take).  I also agree with the conclusion that the outcome was not as decisive as it would appear on its face due to the presence of a right-wing independent candidate on the ballot.  One additional point I would make: Given the fact that this special election was called because of a Republican’s scandalous Craigslist doings,  some Republican voters no doubt stayed home yesterday or even temporarily switched their party allegiance.  Such an effect would have no impact on the 2012 election and would add further evidence to conclusion that the NY-26 election was more marginal than monumental.

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2 Responses to The Marginal Significance of NY-26

  1. J. Maggio says:

    Nate Silver makes the point that even if all Davis votes went to the GOPer it would be a bad outcome for the GOP. And given the strange position of Davis–being, I guess, a Tea Party Democrat–polls indicated that Davis’ support would have broken 2-1 GOP. But 2-1 GOP would still have given Hochul the win.

    http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/25/six-months-after-midterm-disaster-hopeful-signs-for-democrats/

    I dont think it some omen, but it is a win for Dems that means something.

    • Jordan Ragusa says:

      Thanks for commenting Jay. I didn’t see that, and Nate is a smart dude. But his analysis doesn’t take into account turnout (see my final point). I did a very quick search and couldn’t find anything other than speculation on turnout levels. If turnout was low in GOP locations and high in Democratic locations–a plausible assumption–then I would say the scandal had a clear effect on suppressing GOP votes. This would mute the extent to which Medicare played a role (though, again, I think there was at least a minor effect).

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