This story, originally published in April, has been updated.

As Nov. 8, 2016, underscored, predicting the future in politics (or anything, really) is risky.

But right now, everyone in Washington is trying to do it anyway. The latest pundit obsession: analyzing Tuesday's special election in the Atlanta suburbs to fill the congressional seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. It's a solid Republican seat, but both sides say who wins will be a nail-biter.

From that fact alone, it's tempting to try to determine whether Democrats have the momentum to make other seats competitive in the 2018 midterm elections.

It's Tempting, but we should be cautious.

Special elections can be particularly useful tea leaves for studying the national mood, said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan elections analyst and columnist at The Washington Post. Most voters aren't paying much attention to the candidates when they go to vote, which means they're probably thinking big picture.

“When they think about choices, they tend to think big choices: change versus status quo,” Rothenberg said. “Keep the president, or send a message of dissatisfaction to the president.”

But this race is unusually high profile. It's the most expensive House race ever. Which means voters could actually be thinking about the specific candidates and not just Trump vs. Democrats.

No matter who wins, here are the metrics we can use to figure out if Atlanta GOP voters are sending a message to Republicans and Trump, or if this race is a nothingburger.

How does the district compare to the country as a whole?

A (hypothetical) congressional race in the Texas Panhandle, which holds one of the most conservative district in the nation, could tell us a lot about how conservatives are feeling six months into Trump's presidency — but not much else.

 

Georgia's 6th congressional district isn't particularly reflective of the nation: It's white and majority Republican. But it is reflective of how Republicans feel. And in the context of an unusual president, that matters.

“This election tests whether that is still true or whether Republican voters in the district have become so uncomfortable with Trump that a majority has decided to send him a message,” Rothenberg said “and send a new member who will vote to 'check' him.”

Is this a district that's suddenly become competitive?


Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff greets volunteers and supporters at a campaign office in April. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When a district that isn't a swing district starts acting like one, that's another reason to pay attention.

Georgia is a perfect example of this. The 6th District, which covers some of the Atlanta suburbs, has been represented by a Republican for nearly four decades. Price won it by 24 points in November.

Out of nowhere, a 30-year-old Democratic candidate with no legislative experience almost won a runoff in April by becoming the top vote-getter out of 18, mostly GOP candidates. Oh and Jon Ossoff has raised a mind-boggling $20 million dollars in the three months since.


(Kim Soffen / The Washington Post)

Now he's in a down-to-the-wire race against former, GOP Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

If you overlay Ossoff's momentum on top of the fact that Trump only won this district by a percentage and a half in November (Mitt Romney won it by more than 20 points in 2012), you can get a sense of how traditional GOP voters are feeling right now about their leadership.

“I think it's pretty clear,” Rothenberg said, “Republicans in this kind of district are uncomfortable with Donald Trump.”

The question is: Are they feeling frustrated enough to vote for a Democrat?

What's outside money doing?


Republican candidate Karen Handel and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff in a debate in June. (REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry)

Think of a congressional election like a stock: Investors (or political committees and special-interests organizations) are going to spend their money where they think they can get a return on their investment (i.e. their candidate winning).

Sometimes following the money can confirm what pundits already suspected about a race. Ossoff has been breaking fundraising records left and right, confirming there are a lot of grass roots donors inside and outside Georgia who want to use this race as a reason to stick it to Trump.

In the case of Georgia, that's all it confirms. Ossoff's fundraising haul events out when you account for GOP outside groups who have spent millions to avoid an embarrassing potential loss.

The bottom line

Money, political irregularities or an election in a district that's a microcosm of America.

Individually, these are just one factor out of many that determine who will win.

But when you apply all of these metrics to one election, they can help us start to see patterns in the national political mood that we might not have otherwise. And smart pundits like Rothenberg think Georgia's special election could help us understand how traditional Republicans feel about a very nontraditional president, six months in.