Just How “Special” Are Special Elections?

[Another version of the post was published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.  Gibbs Knotts helped write this article.]

On September 25th, 2015, Republican John Boehner shocked the political world when he announced his plans to resign as Speaker of the House and retire from Congress.  In the aftermath of Boehner’s announcement, political commentators debated who would be the new Speaker and the role of the Tea Party in causing Boehner’s early retirement.  Less attention focused on the fact that Boehner’s resignation triggered a special election in Ohio’s 8th congressional district.

In yesterday’s contest to fill Boehner’s seat, Republican Warren Davidson defeated the Democrat Corey Foister.  Local and national outlets predicted it would be a good night for Davidson.  After all, Boehner had held the seat for nearly 25 years and the 8th district is one of the most Republican-leaning districts in Ohio (Obama lost to Mitt Romney in the 8th district 62 to 36 in the district).  Simply put, yesterday’s results were not particularly surprising.

All this begs the question: Are special elections really special?

Answering this question hinges on what one means by “special.”  Special elections certainly generate a lot of media attention.  When a Member of Congress dies, retires because of scandal, or resigns for personal reasons, it is newsworthy.  Special elections may also be special because of their ability to predict future election outcomes.  In one innovative study, political scientists David Smith and Thomas Brunell found that the party that wins the most special elections between elections often gains seats in the subsequent general election.

But “special” is also a synonym for “different.”  And in this context, a key question is whether special elections are somehow unique when compared to regular congressional elections.

We examined this question in a paper that was published earlier this year in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties.  We were particularly interested in whether special election outcomes are structured by the same factors as their closest counterpart: regular open-seat contests.

Why might special elections be different from regular congressional elections?  First, they exist in different political environments.  Regular open-seat races occur in a national environment in tandem with 434 other House contests, about one-third of Senate elections, and, every four years, alongside a presidential election.  In contrast, special elections occur during the “off season” and may be isolated from broader electoral forces.

We were particularly interested in the effect of presidential approval on special election outcomes (a factor widely thought to be a strong determent of congressional election results).  In one of the few studies of special election outcomes, political scientists Keith Gaddie, Charles Bullock, and Scott Buchanan found that the president’s approval rating has no effect on who wins and losses in a special election.  Because their results show that presidential approval does have an effect in open-seat elections, they conclude that special elections are insulated from national forces.  In other words, special elections do seem to be “different” from regular congressional elections in a key way.

Notably, however, Gaddie, Bullock, and Buchanan reached this conclusion with data from 1973-1997.  In our paper we hypothesized that the effect of presidential approval would be different because of the increased polarization in American politics since 2000.  For example, we know that voters are more loyal to one political party and that the national parties have greater organizational resources today.  Research has also found a stronger connection in recent years between presidential election results and House election results.   As Jeffrey Stonecash has shown in his recent book, House elections by the mid-1990s became less candidate-centered and more party-centered.

Our analysis confirmed this hypothesis.  In the modern era, the president’s approval rating does indeed have an effect on special election outcomes.  Candidates from the president’s party perform worse in special elections when the president is unpopular whereas candidates from the opposition party perform better.  Like regular congressional elections, our results show the fate of special election candidates hinges, in part, on national forces.  A secondary result in our paper is that the 2002 midterm seems to be the point in time when presidential approval became a significant predictor of special election outcomes.

As a whole, we conclude that special elections are not that “special” because they are structured by roughly the same set of factors as regular open-seat contests.  Much like Lee Sigelman concluded in 1981, special elections do indeed seem to be national contests despite their unusual timing.  Our research, coupled with Gaddie, Bullock, and Buchanan’s work, reveals that this change in the nature of special elections is the product of significant developments that have occurred from the 1970s to today.

In the context of yesterday’s special election in Ohio’s 8th district, however, presidential approval was probably not the deciding factor.  According to Gallup polling, Obama’s approval rating sits at 51% (not enough to have had an effect in either candidate’s favor).  Instead, what almost certainly matted yesterday was the simple fact that the 8th district contained such a large volume Republican voters.  However we expect presidential approval to be a factor in future contests, particularly in more competitive districts.

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Is Paul Ryan delivering on his promise for regular order?

When Paul Ryan accepted the nomination for the speakership he promised his colleagues that he’d deliver a more regular process. He promised more inclusion in developing strategy, more opportunities for amendments, and greater representation on panels that organize the chamber. So far he has delivered on some promises but continues to struggle on others. Unfortunately for the Speaker, his failures are more likely to get press than his achievements.

Speaker Ryan has delivered in areas where he has clear control. As the de facto leader of the Rules Committee he’s clearly prioritized a more liberal amendment process. Bills are coming to the floor with more opportunities for rank-and-file to alter the language. Since January, Ryan has allowed amendments at nearly a 4-1 clip (structured v. closed rules) according to the Rules Committee website. To those crying for a greater voice on legislation this has to be a welcomed development. It’s a clear break from Ryan’s predecessors in both parties and a step toward a more regular process, though it’s still a far cry from what was “regular” a few decades ago.

Ryan has also kept his promise in regards to internal Republican housekeeping. He reformed the Republican steering committee, removing committee chairs and adding a strong conservative to the panel. This weakens the Speaker while opening a door, albeit a small one, for more conservative influence.

Ryan has also been more inclusive in developing legislative strategy. In February he held a multi-hour beer and pizza summit with conservatives to discuss budget strategy. He’s held several other meetings with members to discuss priorities, party strategy, and other business. By all accounts, he’s opened the door to his office. Members may not agree with every decision he makes, but they can’t complain that he isn’t listening.

All of this is juxtaposed with possibly Ryan’s greatest shortcoming: delivering even something remotely regular in the budget and appropriations cycles. The Budget Committee reported a resolution several weeks ago but it is effectively dead. It doesn’t have the votes to pass on the floor. Ryan has been unable to corral defense hawks and conservatives to support a single resolution. That isn’t because of a lack of trying. Some very unique plans have been floated to try and find the sweet spot between these Republican factions. However, those plans break basically every rule that has been considered “regular” in congressional history.

That’s left Ryan in a difficult spot. The House is destined to a definitively irregular budget and appropriations process. Failure to pass a budget means the House is unlikely to pass appropriations bills. If conservatives remain committed to their version of the budget, Congress as a whole is unlikely to pass any of the 12 appropriations bills. This means the House is setting itself on a trajectory for either a CR into 2017, a shutdown heading into the election, or potentially both. The House’s inability to deliver a budget is a huge failure with potentially damning implications.

The reality is that Ryan can only deliver a regular process if his caucus wants one. And at this point in Ryan’s tenure it’s unclear that members who called for more regular order really want it. If they do, they don’t want it on budgetary matters. With only a few dozen legislative days left in this session Ryan’s track record is unlikely to change. The time for a full return to regular order has come and passed. However, it’s noteworthy to keep in mind the areas where Ryan has delivered as well as those where he didn’t.

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R.I.P. FY2017 Budget

The prospects of a congressional budget resolution are nearing zero. For weeks members in the House and Senate searched for a path forward. As of today, each institution is trail-blazing paths toward a budget but neither appears to meet up with the other. At this point in time, the budget process appears dead in the water.

As early as January House conservatives indicated they would not vote for a budget resolution that met the numbers outlined in the 2-year deal struck by President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader McConnell in October of last year (PL 114-74). Basically, any budget that meets the topline $1.07 trillion will be opposed by House conservatives without a guarantee to find $30 billion in savings in other parts of the budget, namely mandatory programs. The House Budget Committee cleared a budget resolution on Wednesday but only on the condition that the Speaker either agrees to procedural changes or commits to a procedural maneuver that would force the Senate to address a separate bill with $30 billion in savings before they vote on appropriations bills or a budget. It’s possible procedural changes assuage their demands. However, sending a CR or omnibus to the Senate with a side-car is potentially devastating and will likely be opposed by House and Senate leadership at all costs.

The Senate is in an entirely different situation. In a little reported provision included in last year’s budget deal allows the Senate Budget Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), to “file” appropriations numbers. In other words, the Chairman can walk on the Senate floor between April 15 and May 15 and simply insert the 2-year discretionary spending number ($1.07 trillion) in the Congressional Record. This circumvents the budget process entirely. No hearings, markups, amendments, or floor debate or votes are necessary. Essentially, the House and Senate authorized the Chairman to circumvent the FY17 budget process last November.

The key lesson here should be obvious. This 2-year deal was for the Senate. The budget deal was widely considered the Obama-Boehner agreement. However, it was not the President or the House that really needed this agreement. With seven vulnerable Republican seats in states Obama carried in 2012 (nine if you count states Obama carried in 2008), Republican senators need every opportunity to avoid politically damaging and risky votes. The budget process is one of the few bills where tough amendment votes were inevitable. Avoiding these votes will give some political cover to those vulnerable members while also reducing – somewhat – the risk of a shutdown.

The remaining question is whether House leaders can find a way forward on an omnibus spending bill or a CR. A shutdown a month prior to the November election would be catastrophic for the majority. Should that happen, Republicans would lose the Senate and the House would be up for grabs, something no one has, or should have, envisioned when the deal was struck.

In this decade a failed budget process is more the norm than exception. What is exceptional is the inability to write budget and spending bills with numbers already in place. This September Speaker Ryan may find himself between conservatives who continue to vote against large spending bills and Democratic colleagues who have heavy political incentives to watch his majority fail dramatically just a month before the November election. Finding 218 votes to prevent a shutdown is far from impossible but will require some acrobatics. The Speaker may need to limber up if he wants to hold onto his majority.

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Simulating the Senate Vote to Confirm Merrick Garland

On Wednesday, President Obama appointed Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.   Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (IA) have said that Garland will not receive a vote in the current Congress.

Despite McConnell and Grassley’s statements, one of the reasons President Obama selected Garland is the fact that he is relatively moderate, as indicated by this Monkey Cage post, and was thus approved by the Senate in 1997 by a vote of 76-23.  Notably, Garland was appointed to the DC Circuit in that year by a Republican controlled Senate, receiving the support of a majority of Senate Republicans (32 for, 23 against).

On the surface, this would seem to bode well for Garland’s chances of making it to the Supreme Court despite McConnell and Grassley’s obstructionist claims.  However, much has changed since 1997.

In this context (and many like it) the biggest change since 1997 has been the increase in ideological polarization in Congress.  Countless studies have documented that Democrats and Republicans have drifted further apart over the past three decades.  My work on this topic argues that a major reason for the Senate’s polarization has been the increase in the number of senators who first served in the (more polarized) House of Representatives (see here and here).

A straightforward analysis can help us adjudicate between these competing expectations about Garland’s likelihood of being confirmed (and crudely estimate how many votes he might receive).  Although this analysis has a number of limitations, it can give use a rough sense of what to expect.

I estimated a simple logit model of the 1997 vote to confirm Garland to the DC Circuit.  All data came from Keith Poole’s Vote View website.  The model includes just two variables: a senator’s ideology and whether they are from the South.  Although this is a very simple model for sure, it performs well, correctly predicting 88% of the yeas and nays in 1997.

Based on that model’s estimates, I then predicted what would happen in the current Senate.  Data on the ideology of senators in the 114th Congress also came from Poole’s Vote View website.

Figures 1 and 2 below present a senator’s predicted probability of voting for Garland (on the y-axis) by their ideology (on the x-axis).  Liberals are on the left, conservatives on the right.  Figure 1 is for the actual for Garland in 1997 (105th Congress) and Figure 2 is for the simulated vote in the current Congress (114th Congress).  Democrats are in blue and Republicans are in Red.


In the current Congress, the model estimates that 60 senators would vote for Garland and 40 would vote against his confirmation.  Looking at the figure, 60 senators are above the 50% threshold (more likely to vote for Garland than against) and 40 senators are below the 50% threshold.

All Democrats are predicted for Garland as are 14 Republicans.  The predicted Republican yes votes are: Alexander (TN), Gardner (CO), Capito (WV), Flake (AZ), Rounds (SD), McCain (AZ), Hoeven (ND), Heller (NV), Portman (OH), Hatch (UT), Ayotte (NH), Kirk (IL), Murkowski (AK), and Collins (ME).

While this prediction may seem surprising given what we know about party polarization, the two figures reveal how the Republican Party’s shift to the right changed the landscape of Senate confirmations.  Indeed, if just 14 Republicans vote for Garland that would represent a net decrease of 18 Republican votes from twenty years ago.  In the first figure above we can see how in the 105th Congress, a number of moderate Republicans have high probabilities of voting for Garland according to the model (and indeed, moderate Republicans did vote for Garland in 1997).  But as new, more extreme, senators replaced these moderates, the individual probabilities of a “yes” vote drop well below 50% line.

Let me emphasize, again, that this is a crude analysis.  It assumes that ideology and region–alone–shape how a senator votes on confirmations.  Of course, there are electoral and strategic reasons why a senator would vote for or against a president’s Supreme Court nominee.  In addition, an excellent Monkey Cage post by Kastellac, Lax, and Phillips discusses how public opinion in a senator’s state is a key piece of the puzzle.

At the minimum, however, the analysis gives use a sense of what a vote on Garland’s nomination might look like and how the landscape of Senate confirmations has been shaped by ideological polarization.  Of course, there’s a good chance we will never know if this prediction is right or wrong.

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New Budget Drama and Procedural Inventiveness. Got to love the House.

The optimism following the 2-year budget deal struck last October is officially over. Many House majority members who were unhappy with the deal remain unhappy. Over the past month House conservatives have signaled they will not vote for a budget unless they find $30 billion in cuts.

Passing a budget (or appropriations) below the discretionary numbers in the 2-year deal appears to be a nonstarter. So conservatives are attempting to find the savings in mandatory programs. They are circulating an interesting plan to reform major entitlement programs on appropriations bills through the reconciliation process. Here are the major take-aways from that last sentence: conservatives want to circumvent the House Ways & Means Committee, authorize changes to mandatory spending through the discretionary spending process, and do so using a straight majority process rarely used for appropriations.

This is a huge deal. It’s also a lot to unpack. It combines several processes into a plan akin to procedural acrobatics. It’s not impossible, though it would be unprecedented.

The first criticism of the plan is it violates House rules. Those rules state that members cannot add authorizing language (i.e. insert language changing Medicare benefits, taxes, etc.) in appropriations bills. Is this true? Yes. Does it matter? No. The reality is for the last couple decades this rule is waived (read: is not binding) any time an appropriations bill is brought to the floor. So would this rule violation really prevent the House from passing this mega-bill? If they have the votes, no.

The second criticism is that you can’t use reconciliation to pass appropriations bills. Actually, you can, though it has only happened twice. The last time reconciliation was used on appropriations was in 1981 for rescissions in previous spending bills (basically taking away previously awarded budget authority). It has never been used to circumvent a committee of jurisdiction or provide budget authority for executive agencies. In this respect, this is a huge unprecedented step for both reconciliation and the appropriations committees.

The plan has the advantage of attaching mandatory spending cuts to must pass spending legislation. This is something the President could not avoid if it made its way through Congress. There is a catch though: they can’t touch Social Security. That is expressly forbidden in the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act and would subject the bill to a 60-vote point of order in the Senate, something conservatives are using this process to avoid.

Keep in mind this plan is extremely hypothetical. If they somehow navigate the minefield of very powerful people in the House (like Ways & Means Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX)), its chances in the Senate are very small at best.

Regardless, the plan gets big time kudos on style points. What it lacks in regular order it more than makes up for in procedural jujitsu-y-ness.

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Senate SCOTUS politics in 2016

The passing of Justice Antonin Scalia this past weekend throws a new wrinkle into Senate politics. As if things were difficult enough for Majority Leader McConnell, he now has to navigate one of the Senate’s most important votes, or lack thereof, as he attempts to defend seven vulnerable Republican seats.

President Obama is expected to send his nominee to the Senate as soon as next week, when it returns from recess. It is uncertain how the Senate’s “advice and consent” will unfold in coming months. Here are a few possible scenarios.

Senate does not consider the nominee

This is the least likely option. Despite Leader McConnell’s remarks following the news of Justice Scalia’s passing, and reports that the Senate Judiciary Chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), would not hold hearings on a nominee, outright refusal to consider the nominee simply will not happen. Senator Grassley himself is up for reelection in a state Obama won in 2012 by almost six points. The Senior Senator is viewed as a fairly safe bet to win reelection. He will not want to jeopardize his lead with overt political maneuvers that do not play well in a state with a significant Democratic presence.

Republicans have been fighting an obstructionist label since they retook the majority. Refusing to consider Obama’s choice would not only validate that label, it would be a transparently snide political move that would garner the wrong kind of media attention.

Republicans are protecting seats in seven states won by Obama. None of those senators will likely support a stall-all-costs approach to a respected figure. There will almost certainly be a vote.

Dragged out process with no ultimate confirmation

The remaining scenarios are largely dependent on the presidential nominating process.

If the Republican nominee is a candidate senators believe can help their own reelection, then it’s likely the Senate votes, in some form, on Obama’s nominee. It may even be the case that 4 or 5 vulnerable Republicans from states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and possibly Ohio support seating a centrist jurist on The Court. However, the likelihood of a filibuster is astronomically high.

Democrats would need 14 Republican votes to break a filibuster. Short of a damaging presidential candidate winning the nomination, its unlikely 14 Republicans vote with Democrats. There simply aren’t enough moderate or swing states to break the filibuster. For example, many experts peg Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) as the 8th or 9th most vulnerable Republican up for reelection. Kentucky is not a swing state. Betting on Paul to break a filibuster is a long shot. Convincing an additional five or six votes from senators in states like Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, or Alabama to unblock an Obama nominee of this importance is even less likely.

This tactic satisfies critics calling for the Senate to perform their advice and consent function while also playing to the Republican base and blocking the President’s nominee. A very plausible scenario results in a historically long SCOTUS vacancy.

Senate confirms a nominee

If the nominating process plays out differently with no establishment candidate rising to win the Republican nomination, things could go very differently.

If Senator Ted Cruz or Donald Trump wins the nomination it could change the appointment dynamics in the Senate. Both of these candidates perform very well in Republican primary contests but could be liabilities in swing states Republicans are trying to defend. If Republican senators in swing states view the nomination as a drag on their own reelection, it may shift the politics enough to break a filibuster and force a nomination.

That said it would have to be a major drag on the ticket. If by July, the nominee seriously threatens the Senate majority, it’s possible swing state Republicans convince their colleagues to allow a straight up or down vote on the nominee which could then seat the next justice.

It is not likely this happens. The nominee would have to be terribly damaging for the party with some possible missteps heading into the convention. That said it’s not implausible.

The key elements here are the five seats Republicans need to maintain their majority. If those look like they are under threat, it’s possible the expected confirmation politics change dramatically in mid-2016.

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Quantifying the Value of Nikki Haley’s Endorsement

It was leaked this afternoon that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will endorse U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.  Questions about Haley’s endorsement have persisted for months.  Until today, the only reliable information was that she would not be endorsing Donald Trump.

Needless to say, Haley’s endorsement is welcome news for Rubio’s campaign as voters head to the polls on Saturday for the GOP primary.  But just how much is Haley’s endorsement worth?

According my data, Haley’s endorsement should net Rubio an additional 4% on Saturday.  But first, a little background.

Perhaps the most contentious issue among election forecasters this cycle is the extent to which party elites shape presidential nomination contest outcomes.  Although primaries and caucuses give voters the power to decide who wins the nomination, and even though parties are hardly monolithic teams that act in perfect harmony, the conventional wisdom is that party elites do indeed have considerable power over who wins the nomination.

In large part this view stems from a book appropriately titled “The Party Decides.”  Written by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, the book proposes that one of the key tools used by party elites is the power of their endorsement.  It is a testament to Cohen et al.’s work that Nate Silver–the most influential election prognosticator–has written extensively about the party decides thesis and has even catalogued endorsement data this cycle.  Silver calls it the “endorsement primary.”

Although most political observers accept the general wisdom of the “The Party Decides,” the contentiousness surrounding this book concerns how (if at all) Donald Trump fits into the thesis.  Given that most Republican elites are apprehensive (to put it mildly) toward a Trump nomination, and Trump he has secured so few endorsements, there are questions about the book’s predictive power in 2016.  For a more thorough discussion of these issues, see Nate Cohen and Nate Silver.

Back to Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio.  If endorsements do indeed affect who wins the nomination, it should be possible to quantify just how much Haley’s endorsement is worth.

I have been working on a project with two College of Charleston students that examines the factors that correlate with success (or failure) in South Carolina’s nomination contests.  Our data cover the period from 1988 to 2012, giving us an even balance of five contested Democratic elections and five contested Republican elections.

Our primary predictors of a candidate’s vote share include their performance in New Hampshire and Iowa, how much media attention the candidate received, a candidate’s demographic characteristics, and the volume of their endorsements by state party officials.

We plan to release the model’s full predictions Friday evening and discuss more fully what factors have shaped South Carolina’s election results from 1988 to 2012.  Spoiler alert: endorsements are indeed an important factor in the model.

But just how much does a governor’s endorsement matter.

According to the model, from 1988 to 2012 the governor’s endorsement has netted the endorsed candidate an additional 4% of the vote.

Clearly, 4% is not enough to vault Marco Rubio past Donald Trump (at least, not on its own).  According to most polls, Trump has a 19-point lead over Rubio (35% to 16%).  However, a 4% improvement in his vote share would put Rubio in second place ahead of Ted Cruz (who is polling around 18%).

Going forward, a second place finish would be of considerable value for Rubio’s campaign.  A third place finish, however, could dim Rubio’s long term prospects.

Posted in Elections, Political Behavior, Political Parties, Primaries, Voting Behavior | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments