The California 36 special election 

The Los Angeles County elections director has tweeted that Democrat Janice Hahn beat Republican Craig Huey in yesterday’s California 36th congressional district special election by a 55%-45% margin. This is in a district that Barack Obama carried 64%-34% in 2008. In other words, the Democrat ran 9% behind Obama and the Republican ran 11% ahead of John McCain.


Nate Silver in his New York Times blog compares the results in California 36 with those in the New York 26th congressional district special election on May 24. Silver concentrates on the margins between the two parties’ candidates in these special elections and in the November 2008 special election. He comes to the following conclusion: “If the result in New York [26] was more in line with the sorts of outcomes that Democrats were experiencing in the strong years of 2006 and 2008, this one [California 36] looked more like a replay of 2010.”


I see it a little differently. In New York 26 Democrat Kathy Hochul won with 47% of the votes to 42% for Republican Jane Corwin and 9% for “Tea Party” nominee Jack Davis, who was the Democratic nominee in this district in 2006, 2008 and 2010. This in a district that voted 52%-46% for John McCain in 2008. In other words, Hochul ran only 1% ahead of Obama, and fell short of an absolute majority of 50%, while Corwin ran a whopping 10% behind McCain. The joint Corwin and Davis vote is just 1% less than McCain’s percentage, but it’s not at all clear that Corwin was the second choice of all, or even of most, Davis voters.


Hochul’s victory was taken as a vindication of the Democrats’ Mediscare attacks on the budget proposed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and passed by the House with the votes of all but four Republican members. I think this claim was something of a stretch. One reason is that the Democratic percentage didn’t rise appreciably. The second reason is that western Upstate New York is a peculiarly distressed part of America, an area that is losing population and which is suffering from the high-tax and high-spending policies of New York state government. It voted heavily for odd duck Republican governor nominee Carl Paladino, a Buffalo-based businessman, when no other area in the state did so; it gave large percentages in earlier government races to independent governor candidate Tom Golisano, a businessman then also based in western New York (the last time I heard of him, I read that he had moved to Florida to avoid New York’s enormous state income tax). I think the New York 26 result does show evidence of blue collar discontent with Republicans, but that that discontent arises in a place peculiarly disposed to such voters revolts. It has some, but not an enormous amount of, precedental value.


California 36, in contrast, is an affluent area along the Los Angeles County beachfront, heavily white (look at this terrific New York Times interactive graphic showing the predominant racial group: the coast is a white bastion penned in by black and Hispanic interior areas in Los Angeles County). Historically Republican, primarily because of economic issues, it trended heavily toward Democrats in the 1990s. Republican nominee Craig Huey was spectacularly out of line with the district on cultural issues, but managed to get 45% of the vote anyway. I take this result as evidence of significant erosion in Obama/Democratic support in affluent white areas that are part of large metropolitan areas—a key part of the Democratic national coalition since 1996. I think it has somewhat more precedental value than New York 26, which is typical of only a few other districts in western Upstate New York.  


Plus, let’s keep in mind that both of these are special elections, which are sometimes affected by factors that turn out to be insignificant in the Novembers of even-numbered years.

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Michael Barone

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