For all the recent doom and gloom among Democrats about President Joe Biden’s poll numbers or the growing concerns about his age, there’s a much bigger and more important political story that isn’t getting nearly as much attention: Democrats keep winning elections.
I’m not talking about the 2020 election, when Democrats won back the White House and the Senate, or even the 2022 election when Democrats dramatically overperformed in midterm elections — though the salience of those Democratic performances should not be underestimated.?
Rather, it’s the special elections that are happening this year. From state legislative races to state Supreme Court contests, in both blue states and red states, Democrats are demonstrating levels of enthusiasm and turnout that bode well for the party’s chances next fall, irrespective of what the polls say today.
The latest two special elections came last week in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. In the Granite State, Democratic candidate Hal Rafter defeated Republican James Guzofski by 12 points (56% to 44%) to win a state House seat previously held by a Republican. The district voted about 6% more Republican than the country as a whole in the last two presidential elections, which means that Rafter overperformed the partisan baseline by 18 points. The win takes on extra significance because it puts Democrats on the verge of overturning GOP control of the New Hampshire House.?
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania’s 21st House District, Democrat Lindsay Powell easily defeated Republican Erin Connelly Autenreith, helping secure Democrats’ one-vote majority in the state House. Powell was expected to win the district, which has a +17 Democratic advantage. But she won by 30 points — a 13-point overperformance.
These victories follow a notable trend. According to an analysis put together by ABC News, Democrats are performing, on average, 11 points better than expected in special elections this year. And it’s not just happening in blue states such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. We’re also seeing these types of outcomes in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana. If the 2023 special election results are any indication, Democratic voters are simply more energized than Republicans.
Some of you might be asking: so what? How does a special election in New Hampshire or Tennessee tell us anything about national politics? Well, special elections are one of the single best barometers for deciphering the electoral mood of the country. Moreover, they are excellent predictors of future political outcomes.?
In 2022, Democrats consistently overperformed in special elections before the midterms. Those results offered ample evidence that a Republican red wave was unlikely to occur in November. And, of course, that’s precisely what happened.
Perhaps the most important reason for optimism among Democrats is that they are overperforming in elections that are relatively low-turnout and often elite-driven votes. It takes effort to vote in a special election versus a midterm or presidential contest. One has to not only be politically engaged, but also have the time to get to the polls.?
Traditionally, Republicans have done best in such races because their supporters were more likely to turn out. But over the last several cycles, these voters — who tend to be college-educated and more affluent — have dramatically switched to the Democratic Party. Indeed, this shift of suburban, college-educated voters is one of the most important factors in why Democrats have performed so well in the last three election cycles.?
Of course, it’s possible that Democratic overperformance could just be the result of Democrats running better candidates and more effective campaigns. As we saw in 2022, candidate quality did matter for voters. Moreover, one can’t completely dismiss the old nostrum that all politics are local. But an 11-point overperformance in such a diverse array of districts suggests that something else is going on here. Democratic voters are not just turning out to support their own party candidate; they are going to the polls to vote against Republicans.
We’re seeing evidence of this in race after race. In New Hampshire, the losing Republican candidate was not only an election denier, but also a virulent opponent of abortion rights.?
Or take, for example, a contest for election auditor in tiny Warren County, Iowa, that happened last month. The county’s auditor, who had been appointed to the position, has pushed election conspiracy theories and was a QAnon devotee. Voters gathered enough signatures to hold a special election, and the Democratic candidate trounced him by 33.1 points (66.5 to 33.4). Then-President Donald Trump won the district with 57% of the vote in 2020. That’s a more than 45-point reversal of fortune.
Then there was the April race for a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin. The Democratic candidate made support for abortion rights the centerpiece of her campaign and, in one of the most narrowly divided states in the country, won by 11 points — almost 11 points better than when Biden barely bested Trump in 2020.?
All of this is a long way of saying that even though two-thirds of Democrats want a different nominee than Biden and the president’s approval ratings are pretty bad … it probably doesn’t matter all that much.
If special elections are any indication — and the 2022 election results back this up — abortion, fears of GOP extremism and, above all, negative partisanship or an inclination to vote against the other party rather than for a party are driving Democratic turnout.?
Voters might be concerned about Biden’s age — or worry that it makes him more likely to lose the election next fall — but when faced with a choice between Democrats and Republicans, they are making their views clear at the ballot box. It’s not hard to imagine that 14 months from now, when faced with a choice between Biden and Trump, they will make the same decision.?