Dems won a key special election. Why that's (maybe) not great news for Joe Biden.
Also: Fox News goes to desperate lengths to turn people against Biden's student debt relief plan.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. After Noah’s piece about Democratic momentum heading into the midterms, scroll down for some notes from me. Cheers — Aaron
This week, Democrats got yet another eye-popping result in a House special. In 2021 and early 2022, the party had been struggling electorally. But following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, which gutted Constitutional abortion rights, Democratic voters were enraged, and began to register and turn out in startling numbers. In early August, reliably red Kansas’s electorate upheld the state Constitution’s abortion protections by a stunning and unexpected 18 point margin. Democrats also gained 6 point swings from 2020 numbers in red districts in Nebraska and Minnesota.
And on Tuesday a Biden +2 seat went to Democrat Pat Ryan by about the same margin. Usually, with a Democratic president polling at 40 percent in a special heading into midterms, you’d expect a big shift to Republicans. Instead, Democrats held ground. If Democrats have a 2020-like year again in 2022, they’d have a chance of picking up seats in the Senate and holding the House as they did two years ago.
That would be a major upset. Up to this week, 538’s Deluxe forecast gave Democrats only about a 1 in 5 chance of winning the House. But …
It’s important to not get carried away with optimism
Democrats should feel good about these results. They should certainly be much more hopeful about the midterms than they were last month when Biden’s approval bottomed out at 37.5 percent in the 538 average and it looked like the wheels were coming off the party.
Still, it’s wise not to be too hopeful. There’s a lot of reason for uncertainty. Democrats are probably still not favored to win the House. They could easily lose the Senate too.
Democratic partisans (like me!) often bristle at naysayers. The media loves Democrats in disarray stories, and frequently seems to bend over backwards to advance GOP narratives. You can easily imagine the wonderful parody New York Times pitch bot reading those last few paragraphs and tweeting, “Democrats are wildly overperforming in special elections. Here’s why that’s bad news for Joe Biden.”
Good news is encouraging. It energizes voters. It makes them feel like winners, and people like to donate to winners, and vote for them. Politicians trumpet good polls, because good polls get them attention, inspire volunteers, and generally boost their chances. If you’re a Democratic partisan, why not just lean into good news? What’s the point of being a downer?
Despite the fact that good news can help breed good news, I think there are a few reasons to try to reign in enthusiasm.
The first is just out of fidelity to truth. If you’re trying to inform people about the election, you should try to do so accurately.
It’s true that special elections have some predictive power; when specials go your way, you’re likely to do better in November. Based on Democratic overperformance, it’s unlikely we’re going to have the massive red wave this cycle that pundits were predicting as early as 2020.
The problem is that we’re not seeing a huge blue wave either. The specials indicate Democrats may overperform 2020 by a bit. But they narrowly won control of the House and the Senate that year, and heavily gerrymandered new congressional maps in states like Florida, Ohio, and Georgia will make it harder to repeat that. If Dems backslid a little from the benchmark they reached two years ago, they could easily end up losing just a few more House seats, which would give Republicans control.
But Trumpism and rabid authoritarianism has broken the GOP nomination process; their Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, and other key states are terrible, and as a result Dems have a good chance of holding control of that chamber or even picking up a seat or two.
It’s easy to make the argument that Democrats will in fact lose some ground in the House, though. Analyst Dave Wasserman points out that the specials Democrats have done well in have all been very low turnout; NY19, where Democrats held the seat this week, only had 36 percent of 2020 turnout. In contrast, in 2021, when Republicans had strong results in Virginia, the vote turnout was 74 percent of 2020 results.
It's possible that Dobbs has changed the calculus across the board, and Democrats will have great results even when there’s bigger turnout in November. But it’s also possible that Republicans just didn’t come out for the specials and will do better with mobilization in November 2022 as they did in November 2021. There’s no way to tell for sure.
Democratic chances could erode for other reasons as well. August has been a solid month for Biden in part because gas prices have been dropping for weeks. Covid has also been relatively stable; 400 people a day are dying, which is horrific, but which largely (and shamefully) hasn’t been a campaign issue for either party. If there’s a major gas price increase or Covid spike in October, though, Democrats could be facing a much less favorable outlook.
The lessons of 2016
Ignoring this uncertainty would be unwise because — while despair can be demobilizing — too much confidence can also have real electoral downsides.
The most obvious example here is 2016, where pollsters (with the notable exception of Nate Silver) and pundits (including me!) largely argued that Trump had no chance and Hillary Clinton was going to win the election easily. This consensus led FBI director James Comey to tell Congress days before the election that Clinton’s handling of a private email server was under investigation again. The resulting scandal probably tipped the election to Trump.
Excessive certainty can influence powerful actors in counterproductive ways. Complacency can also lead voters to stay home. Clinton had trouble turning out her voters. There’s at least some anecdotal evidence that some stayed home because they thought she was sure to win without them.
In addition to negatively affecting electoral outcomes, overconfidence can leave Democrats ill-prepared to deal with what comes after the election.
Again, 2016 is a good example. Democrats were so shocked and traumatized by the 2016 loss that many of them refused to believe it had happened. This made them easy marks for Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s frivolous recount effort. Stein raised $7 million, and never really disclosed what she did with all the money.
If Democrats had been more mentally prepared for the possibility of a Trump win, they could have made plans about how to resist, and strategized about where funds might be needed to combat a dangerous Republican agenda. Instead, they wasted a ton of money and hope on someone who, in retrospect, appears to have been deliberately taking advantage of their despair.
A lot of people were chastened by 2016. It’s hard to imagine Democrats being quite so confident again.
And yet, on social media you can still see people insisting, with great assurance, that Dobbs changed the landscape of the election completely and irrefutably.
You can also see them insisting that the poll showing John Fetterman ahead of Mehmet Oz by 18 in the Pennsylvania Senate race means the contest there is effectively over.
Maybe this turns out to be right, but a lot can change between now and November. it’s worth remembering that a poll had Mark Kelly ahead of Martha McSally in Arizona by 17 in September 2020. Kelly did win — by a nerve-wracking 2.4 points.
This doesn’t mean that polls should be totally ignored. Polls are useful for a lot of reasons. It’s helpful to have a general sense of which contests are closest if you want to donate time or money. (The Georgia and Nevada Senate races are the ones where Democratic incumbents are most at risk right now, if you were wondering.) And polls are a good gut check when you’re tempted to think your own social circle is representative of the country as a whole. Yes you and all your friends (rightly) think JD Vance is a fascist clown with Peter Thiel’s money in place of his brain, heart, and spine. But a lot of Ohio voters are going to cast ballots for him. Polls remind you of that.
But what polls and specials and analysis can’t do is tell you for sure that the future will turn out okay. Often the future doesn’t turn out okay, even if you can point to a survey or registration data and explain at length why it should. We could sure use a solid win so that Democrats can pass voting rights legislation to protect the election integrity of 2024, and stop Republicans from spending Biden’s second term on frivolous investigations and impeachment exercises. But even more than that, we need to understand that no win is guaranteed, and figure out how to keep fighting even when we lose.
Fox News is very mad about student debt relief
It’s obviously not surprising that Fox News isn’t a fan of Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for individual borrowers. But some of the tactics they’re using to try to turn viewers against it are worth highlighting.
For instance, on Thursday’s edition of Outnumbered, Kayleigh McEnany, a former press secretary for Trump who now works for Fox News, played a clip of a reporter asking President Biden if canceling some student debt is fair to those who didn’t take out loans in the first place. But they conveniently left out what Biden said in response.