Call it “moral victories” or whatever you want; it's still a form of clear progress.
It's been true in a strong majority of special elections so far this year (except Georgia), from Kansas to Montana to a lower-profile congressional race Tuesday in South Carolina to a slate of state legislative races.
The good folks over at Daily Kos Elections have been tracking it all and comparing the results of each race to the presidential race in that district in November, where available. And thus far, Democrats have done better than Hillary Clinton in 17 out of 23 races and better than President Obama in 2012 in 16 of 23.
Here's how that looks compared to 2016, courtesy of Daniel Donner:
This is especially notable because (a) Clinton and Obama both won the popular vote and (b) it's not always the case. Over the preceding three years, in fact, Democrats did worse than Clinton in about 73 percent of special elections:
And if you look at that first chart, you'll notice that Republicans only substantially beat the presidential numbers in one out of 23 races — a state Senate race in Connecticut — while their other overperformances were all pretty close, within 5 points or less of the 2012 presidential race. Democrats, meanwhile, are beating Clinton's numbers by substantial margins in most of these districts.
You may recall the Kansas special election where they lost by just 7 points in a district Clinton lost by 29 — a pretty big surprise at the time. But that's actually only in the middle of the pack as far as races where they've overperformed. In five other state legislative races (five of just 23 on this list total), they over-performed Clinton's numbers by even more than that. And they have beaten Clinton's margins by double digits in 13 out of 23 races total — more than half.
In congressional races, they've beaten Clinton's margins by 21 points in Kansas, 14 points in Montana and 15 points in South Carolina, while underperforming Clinton by two points in Georgia.
A big problem with the intense focus and spending on special elections is that there are so many unique factors. Not only was Georgia's 6th district the sixth-most Democratic-shifting district in the 2016 presidential election, but we also had unique candidates, a unique election format and a rainstorm on the day of the runoff. All of these things allow for well-meaning people to draw different conclusions about what Karen Handel's win means for the political landscape.
But once you start including more special elections in more districts, those unique variables in each district matter less and we get more of a sense for which side's voters are more enthusiastic and which side is doing a better job of persuasion nationwide. Right now, that's the Democrats.
A big reason they haven't won the big one is that all of the big ones have been fought in conservative territory. They took a big shot Tuesday and lost, but the trend is clear.