The polls hadn't even closed yet in upstate New York Tuesday night before the instant analysis of "what it all means" began pouring in from all corners. Predictably, the GOP took on the Kevin Bacon role from "Animal House" ("remain calm! All is WELLLLLL!"). Just as predictably, Democrats played up the magnitude of the upset.
Looking at the numbers, for what it is worth, the latter argument is considerably easier to make than the former. Looking at the available pre-election polling data (which was incredibly accurate, and kudos to our partners at PPP, as well as Siena, for that), and looking at the actual results, two conclusions can be drawn, neither of which buttress the Republican claim that Kathy Hochul's victory is much ado about nothing.
1. Jane Corwin did not lose because of Jack Davis.
One of the primary articles of faith in the Republican community this morning is that Jane Corwin was done in by the spoiler effect of having Tea Party candidate Jack Davis on the ballot. Republicans like Karl Rove, and even some pundits like Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report made the "GOP vote got split" argument after Hochul's victory.
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 being made by both Rove and Wasserman 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.
PPP's final poll had Davis winning twice as much support from Republicans than Democrats. Siena's poll (PDF) had it even closer, with Davis logging 13% from Republicans and 10% from Democrats. If one were to take Davis' vote totals from Tuesday night and distribute them by a similar ratio (giving Corwin somewhere between 56.5-66.7% of the Davis vote), Hochul still wins. What is now a 4700-vote victory for Hochul would shrink, but only down to about 1600-3500 votes.
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.
Give our polling partners at PPP credit: they saw this one coming. In Tom Jensen's analysis of their weekend poll in NY-26, he wrote the following:
The enthusiasm gap and Democratic turnout issues that were such a huge problem for the party last year may prove to be a thing of the past. Last year we frequently found that the likely electorate for various elections was 10 points or more Republican friendly than it had been in 2008. That trend is turned on its head with the folks we interviewed who said they were likely to vote this weekend- they self report having voted for Barack Obama by 5 points in 2008 when he actually lost the district by 6 points. That points to Democratic voters being far more fired up to go out and vote in this election than GOP ones and also suggests that some Republicans voters disgusted by the level of negativity between Corwin and Davis may just be planning to stay home on Tuesday.
There is legitimate evidence from the election turnout to suggest that Jensen was not far off in his analysis. In the New York 26th, the two best performing Democratic counties last 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 last night, dropped from being 22.5% of the total district vote down to just 19.4%.
Bear in mind, for what it is worth, that these numbers are likely to change in the Democrats' favor, as Erie County still (inexplicably) has five precincts that have gone uncounted.
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.
Now, it should go without saying that last night's favorable outcome does not guarantee large gains in 2012, or guarantee a "Democratic mandate", as Wasserman alluded to in something of a strawman argument. What it does do, however, is make clear that there is a path to victory for Democrats even in nominally hostile territory. About the only good thing for Democrats that emerged from that awful 2010 cycle is that there are now dozens of GOP-held seats in districts that are more amenable to Democrats than the one they won last night.
Redistricting can still play Hell with that (which is why we should keep a close eye on that process), but this does legitimize the Democratic message that this is no longer 2010. Even Karl Rove admitted as much in the statement linked to above.
For months, sites like this one have posited that Republican overreach and misreading of the electorate was going to give the Democrats a roadmap to electoral victory.
Last night brought a piece of indisputable evidence to that effect.
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