Tuesday, June 01, 2021

What To Over-Extrapolate From the NM-01 Special Election

Democrats easily held New Mexico's first congressional district in a special election tonight, with state Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D) currently leading state Sen. Mark Moores (R) by a 62-34 margin. The seat was vacant after former Rep. Deb Haaland was appointed Secretary of the Interior.

The result is not a surprise. The NM-01 is a solid blue seat. But in the grand election coverage tradition of over-extrapolating from a single data point, what can we learn?

The reason people were paying attention to this district was not because anyone seriously expected the GOP to flip the seat. It was the margins that mattered, and in particular, whether Democratic turnout would fall off with Donald Trump no longer serving as our common enemy (the other question was whether Republicans could effectively leverage a "rising crime is the fault of defund the police" narrative). Mid-term and off-cycle election turnout has long been the Democratic bête noire, with the conventional wisdom being that Team Blue struggled more to get its voters to the non-presidential polls compared to the GOP. Hence, Dave Wasserman set the following benchmarks for what should count as a "win" in this blue seat:
  • Win by >15: Dems should be very happy
  • Win by 10-15: about what we might expect
  • Win by <10: sign of a Dem turnout problem post-Trump
For comparison's sake, Biden won this district by 23 in 2020, and Haaland (with the benefit of incumbency and Biden's coattails) won it by 16.

Stansbury is currently up by 24 -- not just blowing Wasserman's benchmarks out the water, but overperforming Haaland and at the moment even Biden (it's possible these margins might narrow a bit as the last few votes come in).

This makes me wonder if we might be missing a shift in the relevant dynamics. Is it still the case that Democrats are disadvantaged by off-cycle turnout dynamics? With the almost complete transition of party polarization away from class and towards education, I wonder if the opposite may be true -- if Democrats might start being better-positioned to hang onto their voters in low-turnout elections (high-education voters also tend to be high-turnout voters). I've been flagging this possibility for awhile now, and count this as another data point. One bonus bit of irony is that this likely means many of the GOP voter suppression techniques will actually end up backfiring -- doing more to deter their own base than the Black Democratic voters they're so nakedly targeting.

In addition, I think it's worth asking whether Trump on the ballot was doing more to boost GOP turnout compared to Democratic turnout -- and, in turn, whether the lack of Trump topping the ticket will see more of a red fall-off than a blue one. In the above post, I noted how the needle barely moved on Texas in 2020 not because Democrats failed to get their voters out -- they did, and then some -- but because Trump managed to match increased blue turnout step-for-step. Take Trump out the equation, and it's far from clear the GOP can rally its base as effectively.

All of this points -- and again, "points" is very much about over-extrapolation -- to the GOP being the one to struggle mightily as we head into 2022. Midterms are often a referendum on the presidential incumbent, and Biden's approval line has been ramrod straight throughout his term at around 53%. If he can hold onto that, and benefit from a post-pandemic recovery, he and the Democrats will be very well-positioned for a good outcome next November.

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