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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 11:06 AM ET, 09/13/2011

Why the special elections matter — and why they don’t

Republicans are poised to have a very good showing in two special elections today: one in Nevada’s 2nd district, and one in New York’s 9th. If, as expected, Republicans win them both, the former will amount to a hold of a marginal GOP seat that Democrats had high hopes for several weeks ago. The latter would represent a Republican pick-up of what most people had assumed was a solid Democratic seat.

Republicans, and some neutral commentators, are already spinning that outcome as proof that Democrats will have a tough time next year. In reality, you can safely ignore everything you hear about What It All Means and What It Tells Us About 2012.

Certainly, the electoral landscape — as reflected in these races — would be difference if Barack Obama’s approval ratings were in the low 60s instead of the low 40s. But we don’t need special elections to tell us that. As for predicting the future, it’s well-established that special elections don’t do that (although partisans and some reporters seem to have very short memories). Consider, for example, the string of Democratic special election victories in 2009 — which certainly did not predict Democratic victories in the 2010 midterms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that today’s elections are not important. Republicans will trumpet these wins as a sign of a continuing Republican surge that becan in 2010, and for a week or so, the media will amplify that messsage. While this will fade soon, on the margins, this could help Republicans raise money and motivate activists. The most important effect would be if any strong Republican potential candidates choose to run for Congress in 2012 based on the impression — rooted in today’s results — that it will be a good year for Republicans.

What’s more, while individual House seats may not be as critical as individual Senate seats, you never know when a very close vote will take place in the House that comes down to a single vote. I’m sure Speaker Boehner will be more than happy to increase his conference, even if it’s just by one.

More than that, however, the U.S. political system gives every Member of Congress a chance to become important through his or her actions. It may be unlikely that either of the Republicans who will likely be elected today will become the next Henry Waxman or Paul Ryan or George Miller, but even far less visible Members write bills that might never have become law if someone else had represented their districts.

So do pay attention to these two special elections. Just don’t expect them to tell us what the American people think of Barack Obama — national polls do that job much better. And don’t expect them to tell us anything about November 2012. For that, we’ll just have to wait.

By  |  11:06 AM ET, 09/13/2011

 
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