On Sept. 25, 2015, Republican John A. Boehner shocked the political world when he announced his plans to resign as speaker of the House and retire from Congress. Political commentators debated who would be the new speaker and whether the tea party pushed Boehner into early retirement.
Fewer noted the fact that Boehner’s resignation triggered a special election in Ohio’s 8th Congressional District, held Tuesday. In that vote, Republican Warren Davidson defeated Democrat Corey Foister by roughly 77 to 21, surprising no one. After all, Boehner had held the seat for nearly 25 years. The 8th district is one of the most Republican-leaning districts in Ohio. In 2012, President Obama lost the district to Mitt Romney by 62 to 36 points.
Which brings us to this question: Are special elections really special?
That depends on what we mean by “special.” Special elections certainly generate a lot of media attention. It’s newsworthy – and, in that sense, special — when a member of Congress dies, retires because of scandal, or resigns for personal reasons.
And such elections may be thought special because they point to the results of future elections. In one innovative study, political scientists David Smith and Thomas Brunell found that the party that wins the most special elections between regular elections often gains seats in the next general election.
But “special” is also a synonym for “different.” Are special elections somehow different from regular congressional elections?
We examined this question in a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties. We were particularly interested in whether special election outcomes are structured by the same factors as regular open-seat contests.
Why might special elections be different from regular congressional elections? First, the political environments are different. Regular open-seat races occur alongside 434 other House contests, roughly 33 Senate elections, and, every other election, alongside a presidential election. All that brings national excitement and media attention to voting day. By contrast, special elections occur during the off season when few news outlets are paying attention, and may be forgotten or otherwise isolated from broader electoral forces.
We were particularly interested in whether voters’ attitudes toward the U.S. president affects special elections, in no small part because researchers have repeatedly found that to influence ordinary Congressional elections. In one of the few studies of special election outcomes, political scientists Keith Gaddie, Charles Bullock, and Scott Buchanan found that the president’s approval rating has no effect on who wins and loses a special election – but that public approval of the president does influence ordinary open-seat elections. They concluded that special elections are indeed insulated from national concerns. In other words, special elections do seem to be “different” from regular congressional elections in a key way.
But Gaddie, Bullock, and Buchanan reached this conclusion with data from 1973-1997. We hypothesized that that had changed, since U.S. politics has gotten more polarized since 2000. For example, today voters are more loyal to one political party, and the national parties have greater organizational resources. And in recent years, research has found a stronger connection between who wins the presidency and who wins House seats. As Jeffrey Stonecash has shown in his recent book, House elections by the mid-1990s became less candidate-centered and more party-centered.
Our analysis confirmed this hypothesis. Since the 2002 midterm election, we found, public opinion of the president has been a significant predictor of who will win special elections. When the president is unpopular, candidates from the president’s party perform worse in special elections, while candidates from the opposition party perform better.
In other words, the fate of special election candidates hinges, in part, on national forces – just as in regular congressional elections.
No longer are special elections very “special.” Today they are influenced by roughly the same factors as are regular open-seat contests. Despite their unusual timing, much as Lee Sigelman concluded in 1981, special elections do indeed seem to be national contests writ small.
And yet in Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 8th district, Obama’s approval rating probably made little difference. According to Gallup polling, Obama’s approval rating sits at 51 percent — which is neither high nor low enough to have had an effect in either direction. Instead, what almost certainly mattered Tuesday was the simple fact that the 8th district contained such a large volume Republican voters.
Sometimes politics is local, after all.
Jordan Ragusa is assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston.
Gibbs Knotts is professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston.