We are coming down to the wire in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Republican Rick Saccone will face Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election, for a term of just seven months. Here are four questions (and answers) to clarify what’s at stake, how close the contest is, and what it means for 2018 and politics more broadly.
Does This Race Matter?
It matters for politics but not for policy.
In political terms, this race matters because it could influence recruitment and strategy.
Politicians, like all other election superfans, watch the polls and election results. And they probably take that data into account when they make decisions.
For example, Republicans were having trouble recruiting a high-quality candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota for much of 2017 and early 2018. Many Republicans likely didn’t want to run against Heitkamp – she’s a strong incumbent and for most of 2017, the national political conditions were terrible for Republicans. But by February 2018, Trump’s approval had bumped up a bit, the GOP had gained ground in generic ballot polls, and suddenly Rep. Kevin Cramer, the state’s lone congressman, decided to join the race. Politicians want to win, and improved GOP polling might have influenced his decision.
Similarly, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker briefly floated the idea of jumping back into his state’s Senate race (he announced he was retiring last year) right as the GOP’s polling numbers were improving in February. Republicans are (and have been) the favorites to keep that seat, but it’s not hard to imagine that an easier re-election figured into Corker’s calculations.
A victory by Lamb in what’s been a conservative stronghold might encourage other potential Democratic House candidates to jump into the race in their district. Their thoughts might mirror Cramer’s – that is, if they think they can win, they’re more likely to run. And a Saccone win might convince some wavering Republican congressmen than their seat is still safe and that they should run for re-election.
Maybe more importantly, a Lamb win would provide Democrats with a blueprint for how to run in a deep-red district. Lamb has mainly criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan and has been decidedly soft-spoken on President Trump. He’s also distanced himself from the national Democratic party, taking positions that don’t quite square with Democratic orthodoxy and promising not to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
But the race isn’t that important in terms of policy.
If Lamb wins the race, his first term will last only through the end of the year. Republicans will still have a strong majority in the chamber throughout that time, so Lamb’s presence likely won’t change the shape of policy that comes out of the House. Lamb would also be representing a disappearing district. In 2018, Pennsylvania will use new congressional maps – and Lamb’s home will be in a very different, significantly more competitive district. Similar facts hold for Saccone. He would simply add one vote a strong GOP majority and would only be around for a couple of months – likely meaning that he would have a low-impact first term in the House.
Who’s going to win?
The polling shows a tight race. RealClearPolitics has collected five polls, and the four most recent polls show a single-digit race. Lamb leads by three in an Emerson poll. The most recent Gravis poll shows Saccone ahead by three points, and Gravis’s previous poll showed him up by six. Monmouth University, one of the best pollsters in the industry, had Saccone up by only three points in February.
The average of the most recent polls from Gravis, Emerson, and Monmouth puts Saccone ahead by one point. A one-point lead is not safe – especially when we’re talking about House polls, which are generally less accurate than Senate or presidential polls. In fact, a more detailed margin of error calculations suggest that either candidate could realistically win by double digits.
Would a Lamb win mean Democrats are regaining Obama-Trump blue collar whites?
Pittsburgh (along with Youngstown, Ohio) might be the place that most people think of when they imagine newly converted blue-collar white Trump voters. But those aren’t the only type of voters in this district.
The district is nearly all white, but, according to ACS five-year estimates from the Census Bureau, whites there are more well-educated than whites in most other congressional districts. Whites in the 18th aren’t as well-educated as some traditionally Republican suburban districts (e.g. Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which held a high-profile special election in 2017), but it’s also not as flush with working class whites as other parts of Appalachia (e.g. West Virginia’s 3rd District, the heart of coal country). In other words, the district’s realignment didn’t start with Trump. To see this, just take a look at the changes in Pittsburgh as a whole.
I published this .gif in another piece I wrote on this race (maps were made by Decision Desk HQ’s excellent cartographer, J. Miles Coleman). It shows that Republicans have been gaining strength in the Pittsburgh metro area (the 18th contains some of the southern suburbs and the rural areas below it) for a while. And the topline numbers show basically the same trend.
This graphic shows the Republican presidential candidate’s percentage of the vote in every election since 2000. Despite the ups and downs of politics (e.g. a close race in 2000, a solid Republican year in 2004, a Democratic wave in 2008, etc.), this district has overall moved right. But most of that movement happened before Trump – at a time when George W. Bush was the GOP’s most visible standard-bearer and Democrats were moving to the left culturally (think about the differences between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). In 2016, the GOP’s margin in this district was larger than it was in 2012, but that’s mostly due to Hillary Clinton underperforming Obama rather than Trump improving on Romney’s vote percentage.
The bottom line here is that a special election in some other district (e.g. Minnesota’s 1st District, Minnesota’s 8th District or Maine’s 2nd District) probably would have given a clearer picture of whether Republicans are losing Obama-Trump voters. We’ll be able to get some information about those voters from the results here, but the results will also contain data on college-educated whites, suburban voters and pre-Trump blue collar Republicans.
What does the result mean for the 2018 midterms?
I might sound like a broken record on this, but this one individual result probably doesn’t mean much for 2018. Special elections results, when averaged and compared to the appropriate baseline, can help us predict results of the midterm elections.
So far, those elections, like generic ballot polling and presidential approval, point to a significant advantage for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. In fact, even a modest win for Saccone would represent a real Republican underperformance and fit with the recent pattern of Democratic overperformance. The district is simply that far right.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard