Of course, it is also certainly possible to read too little into it. And it sure seems as if those two groups are practically straining their collective larynxes attempting to do just that. We have read a lot of postscripts about why the election of a Democrat in a historically Republican seat doesn't matter all that much. In proving their case, four dominant bits of evidence have been proffered.
On Wednesday here at Daily Kos, I took on two of the congealing bits of conventional wisdom that emerged from Tuesday night in an attempt to minimize the Democratic victory. While I will spare you a re-run of the entire piece (heck, you can always click the link, right?), here is the highlight reel:
1. Jane Corwin did not lose because of Jack Davis.
One of the primary articles of faith in the Republican community [Wednesday] morning is that Jane Corwin was done in by the spoiler effect of having Tea Party candidate Jack Davis on the ballot.
The problem is that an analysis of the results, coupled with the final polls in the district by PPP and Siena, undermine that argument. The baseline assumption was that the entirety of Davis' support would have bled to Corwin. The data from those two pollsters simply doesn't back that up. To be clear, Corwin almost certainly would have received more of Davis' support than Hochul. But enough to win? Unlikely.
The bottom line: the gap was too wide, and Davis' eventual vote totals too small, for him to be accurately labelled a "spoiler". All his presence did, in the final analysis, was pad Hochul's lead.
2. The "Democratic enthusiasm gap" has badly eroded, if not disappeared.
In the New York 26th, the two best performing Democratic counties [Tuesday] night were Erie and Niagara Counties. In 2010, those two counties combined for 50.7% of the total vote in the district. On Election Night 2011, they combined for 55.4% of the total vote in the district. Meanwhile, the largest GOP-friendly part of the district (Monroe County), which gave Corwin a narrow win [Tuesday] night, dropped from being 22.5% of the total district vote down to just 19.4%.
There is other evidence to suggest that Democrats were more fired up to participate. Districtwide, Hochul's vote total (47.14%) was only a few points higher than the combined performances of the Democratic and Working Families nominees in 2008 (45.03%). But in the Democratic stronghold in the district (Erie County), those numbers leapt up, from 48.5% up to 53.4%.
Even those who tried to flog the "GOP vote got split" meme were ignoring a key point: even if you buy the fallacious assertion that all of Davis' votes would have gone to Corwin (all evidence to the contrary), Hochul still got north of 47% in a district where they have only sniffed those numbers once: in 2006.
Every Democrat would rejoice, and every Republican would shudder, at the notion that the current electorate would look most like the 2006 electorate.
In the four days that have elapsed since that analysis posted here at Daily Kos at Wednesday, we have been treated to two additional bits of analysis to suggest that Hochul's victory was not such a big deal, after all. They deserve a closer look, as well:
3. The New York 26th is a Republican district. Quit pretending that it is a swing district.
When confronted with an unexpected outcome, be it in sports or politics, a favorite defense mechanism is to declare the upset as an entirely predictable outcome. In politics, that usually entails getting awfully creative about describing the terrain in which the election takes place. Palm Beach County being a Buchanan stronghold, for example...
In this case, the creative analysis is in attempting to portray the New York 26th as a kind of "fair-play" district where victory by either party could reasonably be expected. Consider this nugget from Hotline On Call writer Dan Roem, who (rightly) dings newly-anointed DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz for a bit of hyperbole, but then makes a bit of a stretch in his own analysis:
Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell on Wednesday that N.Y.-26 is "the 426th worst-district for Democrats in the country. There's only nine districts out of 435 that are worse than this one."
She's presumably looking at 2010 election results, when former Rep. Chris Lee faced nominal Democratic opposition. But just two years before, Lee won election with 55 percent of the vote - and Democrats spent millions in contesting the seat.
A more useful metric to measure the partisanship of House districts is the Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index, and it shows that the district is less Republican than the average Republican-held House seat.
There are over 240 GOP-held House seats. So the fact that the New York 26th district is less Republican than the "average" House seat would seem to be small consolation to the GOP. After all, by Roem's own calculations later in the article, there are nearly one hundred Republican-held House seats with a Cook PVI that are either equal to, or more Democratic than, the New York 26th.
ABC's political newsletter, The Note, adds a few other fun facts about the district that makes this defeat seem a little more significant for the GOP:
How Republican is New York’s 26th district? Only three Democrats have won the House seat in this area in the past century. It was one of just four districts in the state that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. And it was one of the few districts that voted overwhelmingly for Republican Carl Paladino in last year’s governor’s race. Paladino lost to Andrew Cuomo by a wide margin, capturing only 34 percent of the vote in the entire state.
Of course, Paladino hailed from the region, which makes his success here somewhat predictable. But a century is a long time, and to have the region only represented by a trio of Democrats in all of that time is rather telling, indeed.
Let's be clear: the 26th is not a swing district. In two outstanding Democratic cycles, the GOP held this seat with 52% and 55% of the vote. On Tuesday night, they won just over 42%. Even if you re-allocate Jack Davis' vote, the GOP would have been unlikely to crack 49%. That is signficant, and cannot be minimized easily.
4. Special elections are unpredictable, but that doesn't mean they aren't meaningful.
When all else fails, another convenient defense mechanism upon losing a contest is to deny the importance of the contest. Particularly, in politics, there seems to be a direct correlation in the wake of a special election between the amount of relevance a party places on the election, and said party's performance in the election.
With that in mind, it was not surprising to read some Republicans warn solemnly post-election that it is dangerous to try to divine predictive value from special elections, which are often unpredictable and poor predictors of future electoral currents.
This time around, that analysis was echoed by several in the pundit/analyst class. Case in point: Real Clear Politics' number-cruncher Sean Trende:
Some political scientists note, going back to 1900, the party that nets seats in special elections picks up seats in the House roughly two-thirds of the time. But this relationship has weakened over the years; if we just look at special elections in the 1990s and 2000s, the party that has netted seats in special elections has actually lost seats in the upcoming elections 58 percent of the time.
Special elections are, simply put, quirky things, and this one was particularly so. Looking back from November of 2012, the benefit of hindsight may well enable us to conclude that this election was the first clear sign of the ebbing of the tea party momentum that had propelled the big Republican victories of 2009 and 2010. But there is as good a chance that this Democratic victory in upstate New York will reveal little in the context of the larger macro election forces at work, much like PA-12's results last May revealed very little about the GOP's 63-seat pickup in November.
The problem with Trende's analysis is that it is hard to accept his notion that this special election was "particularly" quirky. Hawaii-01 last year, with it's "all-comer" format allowing Charles Djou to sneak through when the Democratic vote got split, was quirky. New York-23, with Doug Hoffman essentially substituting for DeDe Scozzafava as the de facto GOP nominee in 2009 was most definitely quirky.
But this election? The quirkiest thing about it was Jack Davis, and his support cratered on Election Day, dropping him into the single digits. There wasn't even the grand schism we have seen in New York elections in the past: Jane Corwin was both the Republican and Conservative Party nominees. There was no great disparity in funding--Corwin's self-funding plus third-party contributions likely gave her a cash edge. Indeed, the quirkiest thing about this election proved to be its outcome.
Trende's primary point (that special elections aren't always predictive) is a legitimate one. However, there are legitimate reasons to suspect that this election is different than others. For one thing, NY-26 didn't happen in isolation. You had legislative special election wins in nominally hostile districts in Wisconsin and New Hampshire in previous weeks, plus the near-miss in Wisconsin's judicial election, where Republican David Prosser dropped from a vast lead in the primary to a nail-biter on Election Night. Polling data has also shown distinct and real movement. Even GOP-friendly Rasmussen has the generic Congressional ballot down to a toss-up, while other recent polls have echoed similar trends.
For another, as Dante Chinni noted, the geographic distribution of support for Hochul paints a pretty interesting picture, as well, with major implications for 2012:
As we have noted often on this blog and in longer-term reporting, the Service Worker Centers, have long tended to vote Republican and often by sizable margins.
These 660 counties gave George W. Bush a 14-percent margin of victory in 2000 and a 17-percent margin of victory in 2004. In 2008, Sen. John McCain won them by only 5 percentage points, but by the 2010 midterms they looked solidly Republican again -- GOP congressional candidates won the counties by some 12 percentage points.
What does that have to do with NY-26? Well, those trends were mirrored in the five Service Worker counties in the district through 2010. And Hochul's numbers in those Service Worker counties look a lot like Obama's 2008 numbers in them -- eerily so.
In Genesee, Hochul took 39 percent, Obama had 40. In Livingston it was 42 Hochul, 45 Obama. In Niagra, 47 for Hochul, 47 for Obama. In Orleans, 40 for Hochul, 41 for Obama. In Wyoming, 36 for Hochul and 36 for Obama.
Republican rhetoric, to say nothing of Republican governance, has been based on the premise that the American electorate has a 2010 mentality. It underscores many of the false premises that my friend DemfromCT skewered earlier today.
There is nothing in the electoral results from this week that bolster that case. And while it would be a mistake for Democrats to prematurely declare 2012 victories based on the results in upstate New York this week, it would be a larger mistake for the GOP (and, for that matter, the pundit class) to minimize what happened there, as well. Indeed, the best thing for Democrats in 2012 might well be if the GOP insists on making that very mistake.