Why You Shouldn’t Read Too Much Into Democrats’ Good February

It may be an odd year, but there are still elections happening — and the first notable election of 2023 took place last Tuesday, with contests in Virginia, Wisconsin and a couple of other states. The results left Democrats and liberals cheering; their preferred candidates not only won, but by larger-than-expected margins. However, Democrats shouldn’t get too giddy about what that performance means for future elections.

Arguably the marquee race of the day was the officially nonpartisan top-two primary for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Liberal-aligned Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz finished first with 46 percent of the vote; conservative-aligned former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly finished second with 24 percent of the vote. Protasiewicz and Kelly will now face off in an April 4 general election that will decide control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (not counting this open seat, there are currently three conservative justices and three liberal justices on the court). 

Kelly was the opponent liberals wanted in this race: The liberal outside group A Better Wisconsin Together spent nearly $2.2 million opposing Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow, another conservative candidate considered to have more general-election appeal. (Kelly, by contrast, has some controversial views and lost a previous state Supreme Court election by more than 10 percentage points.) And many liberals are also feeling good about their chances in April given the vote totals from the primary. Together, Kelly and Dorow pulled 46 percent of the vote on Tuesday, while Protasiewicz and another liberal-aligned candidate combined for 54 percent. 

An 8-point advantage for the liberal bloc in a state as divided as Wisconsin is an impressive performance — but it probably doesn’t mean anything for the general election. Since 2008, when Wisconsin’s nominally nonpartisan Supreme Court elections became de facto partisan contests, there has been little relationship between the combined liberal-conservative margin in the primary and the liberal-conservative margin in the general.

Primaries aren’t predictive in Wisconsin Supreme Court races

Margin between all liberal candidates combined and all conservative candidates combined in contested Wisconsin Supreme Court primaries since 2008, compared with the liberal-conservative margin in the subsequent general election

Election Year Primary Margin General Margin Shift
2011 C+10 EVEN L+10
2013 C+28 C+15 L+13
2016 L+11 C+5 C+16
2018 L+7 L+12 L+4
2020 EVEN L+10 L+11
2023 L+8 ? ?

Source: Wisconsin Elections Commission

An optimistic liberal might see that the margin has gotten better for liberals in four of the five elections in which there was a contested primary. However, that’s still a fairly small sample size, and the examples we have show that huge swings between the primary and general are not uncommon. On average, general-election margins in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections differ from primary margins by almost 11 points.

The news is better for Democrats in Virginia, where Tuesday saw a special election for the state’s 4th Congressional District. Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s defeat of Republican pastor Leon Benjamin was no surprise given the district’s FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of D+29. But it was a surprise just how much she won by: almost 49 points, a 19-point Democratic overperformance. McClellan even carried rural Dinwiddie County, which voted for former President Donald Trump by 16 points in 2020 and hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996.

As we’ve written several times here at FiveThirtyEight, special elections can be predictive of the national political environment in the next regularly scheduled election, so this shellacking was a good sign for Democrats. But as we’ve written just as many times, one special election doesn’t mean anything on its own. Local factors like candidate quality might explain McClellan’s overperformance more than systemic national trends. 

That’s why it’s notable that Democrats also punched above their weight in other, lower-profile special elections that have occurred this month. On Tuesday, Democrats scored a 54-point victory in a special election in a Kentucky state Senate district that President Biden carried by 31 points, according to CNalysis. In addition, they won a New Hampshire state House district by 11 points after the two parties achieved a perfect tie (970 votes to 970 votes) in the 2022 election, necessitating a re-vote. And on Feb. 7, Democrats overperformed FiveThirtyEight partisan lean by an average of 29 points in a trio of Pennsylvania state House races.

Taken together, those are encouraging signs for Democrats — but they’re also still just a handful of races in a short period of time. For example, a series of special state-legislative elections in Georgia and Virginia in January showed no such Democratic overperformance. Plus, it’s still early in the 2024 cycle; the Dobbs decision last summer showed how the national mood can change on a dime. We’ll need a longer track record of special elections before we can say that we’re in a lasting pro-Democratic political environment.

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