The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3 big numbers from the Pennsylvania special election — in context

A sign on a chair as supporters exit the hall after Democratic candidate Conor Lamb declared victory. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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That sound you hear echoing around Washington is a whole bunch of people exclaiming, “What does it mean?” We don't even have an official winner in the Pennsylvania special election, but that hasn't delayed the kind of GOP hand-wringing that usually comes after a devastating defeat.

With so many data points flying around, I thought it worth putting a few of them in context.


That's how many districts held by Republicans were more competitive in the 2016 presidential election than Pennsylvania's 18th. This was a district that went for President Trump by 20 points, meaning it's far from the kind of seat Democrats need to win the House. If Democrats can win here, the logic goes, the sky's the limit. The following chart from Patrick Ruffini shows just how many seats would be in play. About half of Republicans would be vulnerable!

Except. Except this is a special election. Turnout is lower. There is no incumbent. Parties win crazy races in special elections that they can't win (and often don't even try to win) in good election years. Republicans win in Hawaii and Massachusetts. Democrats win in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana.

That doesn't mean this isn't a good sign for Democrats; it most certainly is. But it's more a suggestion that the universe of winnable seats in November is big rather than that it includes seats like this one. And Tuesday didn't really tell us anything we didn't already know on that front, as the next number shows.


That's the shift in margin from Trump's 58-38 win here in 2016 to the result Tuesday — regardless of whether Conor Lamb (D) or Rick Saccone (R) winds up in front. And that's a big shift.

Here's the thing, though: It's entirely in keeping with just about everything we've seen since the 2016 election. The margin shift is similar to what we saw in Kansas's 4th District (where the Democrat bettered Hillary Clinton's margin of defeat by 21 points), Montana's at-large district (15 points), South Carolina's 5th District (15) and the Alabama Senate race (29). And special elections for state legislature seats have often seen even bigger shifts, as Philip Bump noted in January.

In other words, if Republicans decided now that it's time to start panicking, what took them so long? This is almost completely par for the course. The only real differences are whether the shift got them a win and the race's proximity to the 2018 election.

$3.9 million to $600,000

Plenty of Republicans are pointing to the fundraising disparity faced by Saccone. And these are real numbers that matter when it comes to winning races.

But if the argument is that Republicans were outspent, that's just not true. Outside groups vastly outspent Democrats, giving Saccone more than enough air-cover.

If the argument is that Saccone was a bad candidate, that's fairer. Fundraising is a big part of succeeding and demonstrating your quality. The fact that Saccone got swamped on it by Lamb in a high-profile special election suggests that GOP griping about his candidacy isn't completely without merit.