New York’s Special House Election: Full of Sound & Fury, Signifying …..?

Who knew that the future of the country lay in the hands of people who live in what The Wall Street Journal describes as a “sleepy, sparsely populated district” in upstate New York?  (“Late Moves Jumble House Race”, by Jonathan Weisman & Naftali Bendavid, 11/2/09).  Depending on who you believe, the outcome in tomorrow’s election to fill the House seat vacated by Army Secretary John McHugh will constitute a referendum on the Obama Presidency, signal the outcome of the 2010 elections, or determine the character of the Republican Party for generations to come.  How believable are these dramatic claims?  Not very, as far as I can tell, and here’s three reasons why I say that.

Let’s start with a review of what’s going on up there in The Empire State’s 23rd House district.  When the seat opened up, the Republican County Chairmen in the district selected Dede Scozzafava to be their party’s nominee in the special election.

Since she’s spent the last 10 years as a Republican legislator in the State Assembly, the 6 years before that as the Mayor of a town in the district, and was the first woman to be appointed to the leadership position of Minority Leader Pro Tempore by her Republican colleagues in the state legislature, we can see that the Chairmen may have thought that their pick was fairly uncontroversial.

But conservative activists from around the country were outraged that the party picked someone who regularly worked in a bipartisan way with Democrats on issues like gay rights, abortion, and most importantly, supported the President’s stimulus package.  So they mounted an intense, well funded and successful campaign to defeat Scozzafava and threw their support to Doug Hoffman, the nominee of the small Conservative Party.  Over the weekend Scozzafava withdrew from the race, acknowledging that she lacked the money to mount a winning campaign, and just yesterday threw her support behind the Democratic Party nominee, Bill Owens.

When tomorrow’s election results are in, political elites across the spectrum are going to tell you what those results mean.  Here are three things to bear in mind as you reach your own conclusions.

FIRST, pay attention to voter turnout.  Turnout in special elections is almost always low, and those few who do vote are usually disproportionately ideologically extreme.  Since these voters are more liberal and more conservative than their ideologically moderate neighbors, their decisions usually aren’t representative of the views of their communities.

How should you measure whether the turnout is low tomorrow?

In the 2008 election, 261,238 folks voted in this district’s House election (See the Report of the Office of the Clerk of the House).  And remember, turnout is almost always higher during a presidential election. So that’s a baseline number to have in mind as you assess the size of tomorrow’s turnout.  You might also want to remember that the total population of the U.S. was over 301 million people in 2008 (see the U.S. Bureau of the Census).  So ask yourself, how likely is it that the votes of some 200,000 people in a special election in the rural, mountainous border between New York, Vermont and Canada are an accurate barometer of how the country as a whole is leaning?

SECOND, look for exit polls or other outlets that report how voters who identify themselves as independents voted.

Since the district’s most liberal and conservative voters will almost surely vote for Owens and Hoffman, respectively, what’s really up for grabs are the votes of independents.

However, since the overall turnout is likely to be small, the number of independent voters in tomorrow’s election may be so tiny that it’ll be impossible to generate any meaningful conclusions no matter who they support.  But what the heck, it’s worth a look.

THIRD, when thinking about whether there are any national implications associated with the outcome of this election, consider how representative this District is of the rest of the country.  One way to do that is to take a look at its departed Representative, John McHugh.

The American Conservative Union, which describes itself as the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots conservative lobbying organization whose purpose is to communicate and advance the goals and principles of conservatism, gives every member of Congress a score based on a 100-point scale that tells you how conservative they are — the higher the score, the more conservative the member, with 100 being the highest possible score.

In the ACU’s 2008 ranking of all House members, McHugh has a lifetime score of 72.

How does that compare with the scores of Representatives from around the country?

Of the chamber’s 435 Members, there are 4 others with his score.  258 of his colleagues have lower scores (so are more liberal) while 172 of them have higher scores (so are more conservative).  That puts him somewhere near the middle, and might lead you to think that he and the district he represents are pretty representative of the country at large.

Yet that kind of simple, national comparison masks some important regional variation.

On closer inspection, McHugh’s score is off the charts compared to House members in the 11 states that comprise the Northeast.  He’s far more conservative than most legislators elected in that part of the country.

He’s not even representative of the ideological leanings of Members in his own state.

Consider that New York has 29 House Members — 24 of them have ACU scores lower than McHugh (so are more liberal than he is).  The average score for those 24 members is 9 — a far cry from his 72.  Indeed, the average ACU score for all of New York’s Representatives is 21.

He’s also way out-of-step with the ideological leanings of House Members from the Northeast.

The average ACU score for the 91 Representatives from that part of the country is 26 (this includes the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island & Vermont).

So, when you hear the dramatic claims about what the outcome of tomorrow’s election in New York’s 23rd House district means for the rest of the country …… take a deep breath, relax, and take the time to reach your own conclusions.



One Response

  1. Thanks for this pertinent background. It’ll help me put tonight and tomorrow’s endless interpretations into context.

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