In the wake of last week’s special congressional election in Georgia, on which Democrats spent more than $30 million only to come up short, some on the left have taken solace in the idea that the result was nonetheless a good portent—a sign that Democratic candidates are poised to win the House next year.
The Georgia race, they point out, took place in a “very Republican district”—one that went for its Republican representative, Tom Price, by a 23-point margin last year. (Price triggered the special election when he took the job of health and human services secretary in the Trump administration.) Republican Karen Handel, by contrast, won by just 4 percentage points, 52 percent, compared to 48 percent for the Democrat, Jon Ossoff.
By that calculation, Ossoff knocked 19 points off the normal Republican margin, a staggering swing. If Democrats could knock 19 points off every Republican representative’s winning margin in 2018, they would win a huge majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans, by this logic, shouldn’t be celebrating Handel’s win; they should be quaking in their boots.
It is, of course, not that simple. While Ossoff did come impressively close, Democrats are going to have to improve on his showing nationally if they hope to take the House next year.
For one thing, Georgia’s Sixth District isn’t nearly as Republican as Price’s margin of victory suggests. He was a popular incumbent who had represented the district for more than a decade; his Democratic opponent in 2016 was someone named Rodney Stooksbury, who got there by being the only person to file papers for the Democratic nomination. Stooksbury spent $0 on the race and ran no perceptible campaign. A local TV station that tried to track him down found that not even his neighbors had heard of him, and concluded, “Voters question if Stooksbury even exists.”
We can assume, then, that the 38 percent of the vote won by Stooksbury reflects the proportion of the district’s voters who would vote for a ham sandwich if it had a D next to its name.
Meanwhile, at the top of the ticket, Donald Trump also won the district, but by a much narrower margin: He took about 48 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent. That means Ossoff performed only a point better than Clinton did, while Handel overperformed Trump by 4 points.
Could Democrats win the midterms by getting about the same proportion of the vote as Clinton did last year? She did, after all, win the popular vote. But because of uneven population distribution and the way the House districts are drawn, this would not be enough: Trump won 230 out of 435 congressional districts, more than the 218 required for a majority. (Because so many Republican candidates, like Price, did better than Trump, Republicans actually won 241 seats.)
By this metric, it’s clear that Democrats must do more than simply match Clinton’s vote share to win the House.
Clinton did unusually well in Georgia’s Sixth, which is home to a disproportionate number of the sort of voters Trump struggled with: affluent, college-educated white professionals. These kinds of districts, where otherwise Republican-leaning voters were turned off by Trump, are precisely the ones Democrats will be targeting in 2018. But in many of them, they will be up against popular, conventional Republican incumbents—candidates like Tom Price—making it all the more of an uphill battle.
There are more nuanced ways of looking at a given district’s partisan tilt, such as the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index, which gives the Sixth District a rating of “R+8.” By that measure, Ossoff overperformed more significantly, though he still didn’t exceed expectations as much as the Democratic candidates in the other three, less-hyped special elections held this year, as David Wasserman explains. The PVI calculation, which takes more than one presidential election into account, may be more accurate in assessing a given district’s baseline—or it may fail to account for the degree to which Trump will be a factor next year.
All of this math is a bit apples-to-oranges. Turnout in a presidential election is different from turnout in a midterm election, which is different from special-election turnout. It’s always a mistake to read too much into special elections; they are thermometers of the current political climate, not predictors of what’s to come.
But there’s one unavoidable fact: Democrats cannot win Congress in 2018 unless a substantial proportion of Trump’s 2016 voters either switch their votes or decide to stay home. In Georgia, that didn’t happen.