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. Pundits and lawmakers are specifically analyzing two upcoming special elections — an election Tuesday in Kansas to fill the congressional seat CIA Director Mike Pompeo used to hold and an election April 18 in the Atlanta suburbs to fill the congressional seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — to see what those races say about voters' satisfaction with President Trump and the Republican-majority Congress. And, from there, it's tempting to ask what we can conclude about which party will have the momentum in the 2018 midterm elections.
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.”
With an eye on the two elections, here are the metrics the pros use to help them to project the results of an election forward.
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 three months into Trump's presidency — but not much else.
Which is why the gold-standard for microcosms of the national mood is a district that has roughly the same ethnic and socio-economic makeup of the nation, and one where voters' presidential choices reflected the nation's.
Unfortunately for pundits, these kinds of swing districts aren't easy to come by. Armed with new census data, many state lawmakers slice and dice electoral districts every decade to become more politically homogenous than the nation as a whole.
In the case of the upcoming special elections in Kansas and Georgia, neither district is particularly reflective of the nation: The districts are majority white and majority Republican. (This is especially true for Pompeo's old seat in the Wichita area, where Trump won by nearly 30 points in November).
Is this a district that's suddenly become competitive?
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.
Suddenly, a little-known, young Democratic candidate with no legislative experience is leading a pack of 16 candidates, most of them Republicans. If 30-year-old Jon Ossoff wins more than 50 percent of the vote on April 18, he'll be the first Democrat to represent this area in Congress since the '70s.
If he doesn't get a majority, it looks very likely he will head to a June runoff with the top Republican vote-getter, who could be former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel.
We can still learn a lot even if Ossoff doesn't win that one-on-one runoff against a Republican. 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.”
What's outside money doing?
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 (by their candidate winning).
Sometimes following the money can confirm what pundits already suspected about a race. When Ossoff announced last week that he had raised an insane $8.3 million over the past quarter, that confirmed there are a lot of Democratic donors who think he could actually win this thing.
Sometimes money can be a symptom of an underlying problem. On Thursday, just five days before Kansas's 4th District special election, House Republicans' campaign arm bought TV to boost Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes over Democratic attorney James Thompson.
That raised a lot of eyebrows in Washington. It also piqued liberals' interest. Thompson recently announced he received $240,000 in mostly small donations since Thursday, despite the fact the national Democratic Party isn't spending any money there.
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.