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Some elections are special
But they don’t necessarily mean all that much

10/06/11



Do special election victories this year in New Hampshire suggest a broader trend? Depends on who you ask.

Democrats have won three of four special elections for state representative races so far this year. Even the one Republican winner, Kevin Janvrin, holds some stances that would appear to be in conflict with the GOP, perhaps notably that he doesn’t support right-to-work legislation. It must be a Democratic wave in the making. Well, maybe not, or maybe, or maybe it just doesn’t tell us much of anything.

In case you missed it, Republicans won huge majorities in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate as well as the Executive Council in 2010. But whether an individual special election in a state representative district, where sometimes just a couple thousand people vote, holds some broader meaning or representation for the larger electorate, that’s hard to say.

“My general sense is that how it’s used as a political tool, if it helps make the case for your side then it can have a lot of meaning,” said political analyst Dean Spiliotes. “It can help to make the larger argument.”

So Democrats can make that case in the messaging war that these individual elections represent a larger swing back to Democrats — that’s the narrative they have to start creating if they want more success in 2012, as well as in local elections later this fall. So the wins give Democrats something to build on, but the elections may have little to do with any big swing in the making.

Democrats, naturally, said the victories were a rejection of the Republican leadership in Concord. In just the same way,  Republicans said their special election victories in 2009 represented a rejection of Democratic rule in Concord. Republicans did well in special elections and local election in 2009, coming off a horrible year for Republicans in 2008. The GOP successes in 2010 are well documented.

So, you want to be the party winning special elections so you can make the broader trend argument, not necessarily because those victories actually are indicative of a broader trend.

“We have to be careful not to over-interpret,” Spiliotes said, adding special elections typically have a low turnout with most often just core activists showing up.

In the general election in 2010, where there were more than 80 new GOP state representatives elected, Spiliotes guessed a lot of voters didn’t know much about individual candidates for state representative, but simply voted for whoever had Rs next to their name.

Still, Spiliotes said there could be somewhat of a mid-course correction factor — the 2010 election swung so hard to the right, perhaps the special elections just represent a slight evening-out swing back to the left.

Turnout not comparable

While Spiliotes said special election victories can possibly be a sign of things to come, the differences in turnout numbers for special elections and general elections are so striking that it makes it difficult to be sure of trends. He said, particularly at the state representative level, special elections can be about specific personalities and issues.

“It’s just a different animal than a general election,” Spiliotes said.

It happens on a national level as well. Special elections for congressional seats often get a lot of attention nationally, and both sides try to play them off as a trend in their direction. The congressional level, simply because more people typically vote, could provide a somewhat better gauge of what’s going on. But often, special election outcomes can simply be reactions to whatever caused the election in the first place, like say, a scandal that led to a lawmaker’s resignation.

“They just get a lot more media scrutiny than when you have 100 people running,” Spiliotes said.

State party roles

In a special election, state parties can help raise visibility of particular races or particular issues, in a way they couldn’t in a general election. It seems the Democratic Party was effective in how it distributed its resources for the special elections this year. The state GOP or the state Democratic Party can’t devote big money, time and manpower to individual state representative races in a general election, when there are lots of other races to pay attention to.

Also, with massive majorities on the Republican side, the victories meant more for Democrats. And sometimes it’s easier to make the case against the guys in office, rather than against someone on the outside.

It’s difficult to say how much the controversy with the state GOP, which resulted in Jack Kimball’s resigning in August, impacted any of the special elections; it might have had no impact. The state party can have a role in special elections, but again, these special elections this year most definitely meant more to Democrats.

Looking ahead to local elections in November, look for both parties to find broader significance in whatever comes out of those.






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