The congressional election in Georgia this week was billed as having potential national implications, as an early test of whether anti-Trump energy could fuel Democratic victory in a traditionally Republican district. It seems likely that the same will be said for scattered upcoming special elections in other states.
But political scientists and pollsters who analyze races for a living say that so-called bellwether races are tricky to evaluate — if they even exist at all.
Edward R. Tufte, a professor of political science and statistics at Yale who wrote a landmark paper on the subject in 1975, was brief in his response to a question about the validity of using such races to predict the results of midterm elections in 2018.
“Bellwethers only exist after the fact, are astrology, and indicate only that it’s a slow day at the national news desk,” he wrote in an email.
Other experts were more circumspect. While races for seats like the Sixth Congressional District in Georgia this week, the Fourth District in Kansas last week and the coming election for Montana’s sole House seat in May do not necessarily have predictive power, they said, the outcomes could serve as a finger in the wind for the political conditions that President Trump’s administration has imposed on the country.
David Rothschild, an economist at the Microsoft Research Lab who studies forecasting and public sentiment, said that elections like those in Georgia give experts actual voting data, a contrast to the stream of polling and punditry that usually animates political conversation.
While cautioning that the election result could not be mapped onto future races (“they call it a special election for a reason”), he said the results in Georgia were meaningful. The election on Tuesday pitted 18 candidates against one another, but Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, managed to receive 48.1 percent in a heavily Republican district. He will face Karen Handel, a Republican who won just under 20 percent of the vote, in a runoff in June.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to get really excited and to try to extrapolate from mid-midterm elections because it gives us an outcome variable,” he said. “A lot of polling and a lot of loose talk is great, but we like action, we like outcomes, and these are outcomes.
Bellwether elections — which serve as an early warning for change in political headwinds — are often identified after the fact, as when Harris Wofford, a relative unknown, managed to triumph over Dick Thornburgh, a former Attorney General in the Reagan and Bush administrations, in a special election in Pennsylvania in 1991. His victory was later seen as an early indication that Bill Clinton — whose campaign team included the Wofford veterans Paul Begala and James Carville — could find success in the state, which he did.
But David Paleologos, the director of the political research center at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, said that national analyses were often in danger of missing facts on the ground, viewing candidates as vessels of broader Democratic and Republican ideologies, rather than politicians with distinct views informed by local issues.
He recalled the Massachusetts special election of Senator Scott Brown, who defeated the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, in January 2010. When Mr. Brown came from behind to surpass Ms. Coakley forecasters took it as a signal that other long-held Democratic seats in Massachusetts were about to fall. But it didn’t turn out that way.
“Brown’s race turned up a big fat zero goose egg for the Republican Party in the congressional races that year,” Mr. Paleologos recalled. “And four of the 10 races were decided by less than 35,000 votes but every Democrat prevailed.”
He concluded that “it was not fair for people to report it as this big Obama backlash that Brown was riding,” and said that Ms. Coakley herself “bore the brunt of responsibility” for the loss.
However, as Mr. Paleologos said, Mr. Brown’s election could have been viewed as a more general indicator of a surge in conservative fortunes. Republican lawmakers, many of them fueled by the Tea Party movement, took 63 seats in Congress and recaptured the majority, a sea change in American politics. Even some Republican incumbents were swept away in the change.
Could Mr. Ossof’s strong showing on Tuesday represent a similar shift in the tide, but for the left?
Sam Wang, the founder of the Princeton Election Consortium (who swallowed a cricket on television after losing a bet on President Trump’s electoral chances), said that he was watching the Georgia election closely. But he added that the special congressional election held in Kansas last week was potentially more important, because it demonstrated the political range of a district previously thought to be safely conservative.
In Kansas, the Republican candidate Ron Estes beat back a close challenge from the Democrat James Thompson to win a House seat. Mr. Wang said that Mr. Estes’s victory had distracted from a telling result, in which the margin between the two candidates was about 20 points closer than it had been in the past two presidential elections.
And if the atmosphere that led Mr. Thompson to be so competitive in Kansas held into next year, Mr. Wang said, then “Democrats would have as large a majority in the House of Representatives as they did when Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.”
“Is that going to hold up? There’s no telling,” he added. “But what it does is, it shows what is possible.”
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