Special Elections are "Special" for a Reason

If the economy were a little stronger, and unemployment a little lower, there’s a good chance that New York’s 9th District would have remained in Democratic hands despite the indiscretions of its former congressman, Anthony Weiner.

But the economy is weak, unemployment is high, and voters are unhappy with President Barack Obama. In yesterday’s special election, Republican Bob Turner capitalized on that discontent to score a decisive win in the New York 9th, a heavily Democratic district that hasn’t had a Republican representative since 1922.

Naturally, this electoral upset has led to mountains of spin from both Republican and Democratic leaders. Texas Republican Pete Sessions, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, called the election “a rebuke of President Obama’s policies,” and declared that “an unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide in a 2012 election that is a referendum on his economic policies.”

Does the election represent broad dissatisfaction with the state of the economy? Absolutely. But is it fair to call the results a rebuke of the president’s policies? Not quite. As Nate Silver points out, the district was already behaving unusually in 2008: “Despite having a 37-point edge in party registration, Mr. Obama won the election by only 11 points there -- barely better than the seven-point edge he had nationwide.” The Ninth District contains a large percentage of Orthodox Jews (a rarity outside of New York City) who strongly disappove of Obama’s stance on Israel. According to a pre-election survey by Public Policy Polling, 69 percent of voters in the district ranked Israel as “somewhat” or “very important” to their vote, and 54 percent Demographically at least, the Ninth District might be too idiosyncratic to stand as a national barometer.

That said, it’s possible to go too far in this direction, and downplay the broader implications to this election. “Special elections are always difficult -- they are low turnout, high-intensity races,” says New York Congressman Steve Israel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t account for the fact that approval for the Democratic Party was down across the board in NY–9. Among voters who said Israel wasn’t important to them, according to Public Policy Polling, David Weprin -- the Democratic candidate -- was up by 31 points, a 21 point decline from Obama’s performance in 2008. Moreover, only 31 percent of voters in the district approve of Obama, 44 percent have more faith in congressional Republicans to lead the country than they do the president, and 46 percent say they would support former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney over Obama if he were the Republican nominee for president.

Special elections are just that -- special -- and shouldn’t be read as broad indications of the political landscape. If that were the case, Democrats wouldn’t have suffered a historic loss in the 2010 midterms – after all, those elections were preceded by a Democratic winning streak in special contests. That said, special elections can provide a useful glimpse into the national mood. Ninth District voters, like most Americans, are unhappy with the nation’s direction, and willing to “throw out the bums” if that’s what it requires. For an incumbent president seeking reelection, that is a bad sign.

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