More Satisfaction For Democrats Than Republicans In New York 20th Special Election

Not much good news for either party, but the Democrats do slightly better.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Well, it looks like we don't have a final result in the special election held in the New York 20th congressional district yesterday. Democrat Scott Murphy leads Republican Jim Tedisco by 25 votes, with absentee and military votes still left to count. They could conceivably change the result, but not necessarily: Democrats have done a good job in many places on absentee votes.

This is not particularly good news for either party.

Democrats may advance the talking point that the party registration in the district is heavily Republican, but party registration is irrelevant, because in Upstate New York many self-identified Democrats and independents register as Republicans in order to vote in Republican primaries, which have traditionally (though not always lately) been decisive in state legislative and local elections. Nor is it relevant that this district was held by Republicans for many years, Gerald Solomon from 1979 to 1999 and John Sweeney from 1999 to 2007. The Republicans may argue that this represents a gain for them, since Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, whose appointment to the U.S. Senate triggered this special election, was re-elected 62-38 percent in 2008. She obviously was running way ahead of the party two years after beating Sweeney (who had scandal problems) 53-47 percent in 2006.

The more appropriate benchmark is the 2008 presidential election, in which Barack Obama carried the district 51-48 percent. Comparing that to Murphy's current 50.01-49.99 percent lead, we find Murphy running .7 percent behind Obama and Tedisco running 2.3 percent ahead of McCain. We don't see the falloff here from the Obama percentage that we did in the December 2 Georgia Senate runoff, in which Democrat Jim Martin won 43 percent of the vote in a state where Obama won 47 percent of the vote. In that election, in the two special elections for the House in Louisiana in December and for a set of legislative and Fairfax County special elections in Northern Virginia in January and February, Democratic turnout dropped off much more sharply than Republican turnout as compared to the November 2008 results. That's not the case here. Tedisco got 49 percent of the McCain vote; Murphy got 46 percent of the Obama vote—a difference, but not a big one. Obamaenthusiasm is reasonably alive and well in Upstate New York.

Or at least in a district in which there are relatively few of the two voting blocs that gave Obama huge majorities. The district's population is only 2 percent black. And although there are many small colleges in the district, there aren't the huge campuses or large university towns or thriving singles neighborhoods that you find in some districts. Black turnout seems to have declined sharply in the special elections mentioned above. There simply wasn't much black turnout to decline in the New York 20th. 

Overall turnout was 47 percent of the presidential turnout. Turnout dropped most in the far fringes of the district: it was under 40 percent of November 2008 turnout in Essex County in the far north, Delaware and Otsego counties in the west, in Dutchess County in the south—all places where the signals from Albany TV stations come in pretty weakly. It was most robust in Saratoga County and Rensselaer County, suburban areas north and east of Albany, and in Warren County and Washington County farther north.

Here you see two different patterns of possible national significance. In Saratoga County, Tedisco got 59 percent as many votes as McCain, while Murphy got only 47 percent as many as Obama. Tedisco's percentage in Saratoga County, which casts about one third of the district's votes, was 6.3 percent higher than McCain—a gain that, if duplicated district-wide, would have given him a solid win. Obama ran very well in affluent suburban counties, in many probably better than any Democrat has run since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. This suggests the Obama appeal is wearing off in such areas and that opposition to the expansive Obama budgets and the various bailouts has some traction there. I should add that I don't find this effect in Rensselaer County, however.

In Warren County and Washington County, the turnout trend was in the opposite direction. There the Murphy vote was 53 percent and 56 percent of Obama's, while the Tedisco vote was only 45 percent and 44 percent of McCain's. Murphy's percentage was 5.2 percent higher than Obama's in Warren County and 6.5 percent higher than Obama's in Washington County—gains that, if duplicated district-wide, would have given him a solid win. These are Vermontish areas, literally on the Vermont border, once heavily Republican (as Vermont was), which seem to have attracted Manhattan-oriented newcomers who are highly liberal on cultural issues and quite willing to support big government policies. Vermont was Obama's second-best state, after his native Hawaii, and it looks like Vermontish areas continue to show considerable enthusiasm for him and his party and continued disdain for Republicans.

The good news for Republicans is that there are many more voters in affluent suburban areas than in Vermontish areas around the country; I can't identify too many of the latter outside New England and coastal California (well, maybe San Juan County, Wash.).

But overall I see more reason for satisfaction for Democrats than for Republicans in the result, whoever turns out to be the winner. The Obama appeal held up pretty well in the New York 20th, significantly better than in earlier special elections. Tedisco failed to come up with a message that raised the Republican percentage enough to produce a significant win. For a month, he waffled on whether he would have voted for the February stimulus package; only when people learned that it included a clause approving the AIG bonuses did he come out in opposition and try to capitalize on that. The message to Republicans is, I think, that simple opposition to Obama policies will only get you so far, and that's not far enough, even if Tedisco turns out to be the narrow winner rather than the narrow loser. It's not quite fair to say, as Obama has been saying, that Republicans have presented no alternative policies; Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, has done so, for example, in the Wall Street Journal today. Republicans on the campaign trail have to do more than that. They have to present policies that embody a vision of the future, not just denounce taxes and spending.

Polls tell you a lot about public opinion, but only elections can tell you very much about turnout. The New York 20th results tell me that Republicans would do well not to count on lower Democratic turnout to produce much in the way of higher Republican percentages, at least in areas where there was not substantial turnout increase in November 2008 among young voters, who tend to be transient, and black voters, who may never again be as enthused as they were last year. We have two more special elections coming up, but the results are not likely to be as significant. These are heavily Democratic districts—White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's Illinois 5th district voted 73-26 percent for Obama and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis's California 32nd district voted 68-30 percent for him. Both are in huge media markets (Chicago, Los Angeles) and are not going to be seriously contested by Republicans.

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