Election Coverage / Government Watch / Politics

What House Special Elections Really Tell Us About the Midterms

AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman


Long before there was “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” liberals, the media, and much of the political elite had another nemesis in Sarah Palin. In her folksy manner, perceived lack of knowledge about global affairs, and imperfect family dynamic, they perceived a caricature of the sort of voter they all too casually dismissed in the years after 2008. This in large part explains their jubilation after Sarah Palin was defeated by Democrat Mary Peltola in the special election for Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives last month. But while the left insists that this outcome and a few other special election results are indicative of a resurgent Democrat Party, there is ample reason to doubt that hasty conclusion.

Peltola’s victory, leaving aside Alaska’s complicated “top four” electoral system, provided not one but two stories for an eager media. The first was the defeat of Sarah Palin, which allowed them to once again paint the former governor as an extremist unrepresentative of the electorate. The second was that the race formed another building block in an already existing narrative that Democrats are on the upswing and may yet emerge victorious in November.

That latter narrative had been built upon the results of five special elections over the course of July and August: one in Nebraska, one in Minnesota, two in New York, and the fifth in Alaska. In all of them, Democrat candidates did better than Joe Biden did in 2020, and the Republican candidates worse than Donald Trump, which the media has seized upon, along with Palin’s defeat, to argue that no Republican wave is coming, and that instead, Democrats might make gains.

It is worth examining each of the special elections in turn to evaluate these theories. That examination will reveal that while there is some evidence that Democrat voters have become more engaged, there is less evidence for a shift among swing voters. While the special elections probably don’t indicate a year as good for the GOP as 2010 or 2014, they point to an environment around or slightly more Republican than 2020, which would still present serious problems for Democrats. Furthermore, these elections occurred in very specific demographic environments. When we dig deeper, we will see that the “Democratic overperformances” were far less impressive than they might superficially have seemed.

Let us first get Alaska out of the way. Despite being the most recent race, it involved unique circumstances, not merely in Palin’s presence as a candidate but in the electoral system used. All candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran in a single preliminary primary, and then the top four went to the general election, in which voters were allowed to list preferences. The secondary preferences of those voters whose first-choice candidates came in third and fourth were then redistributed between the top two candidates. As the third placed candidate dropped out, the general election featured Democrat Mary Peltola and Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. Peltola won 40% of the vote, Palin 31%, and Begich 29%. Of Begich’s voters, 50% went for Palin as their second choice, 28% for Peltola, and 22% chose not to list any preference. That allowed Peltola to win by 3%.

Republicans have been quick to note the complexity of the system (true), and that Republican candidates combined for nearly 60% of the vote. However, Peltola did receive the most first-round ballots, with 40.2%, and 28% of Begich’s voters chose to vote for Peltola as their second choice over Palin. Palin would have needed to win the spoiled ballots by a margin of over 80%-20% to tie, and it is unclear if she would have won a normal runoff.

We can, with some caveats, conclude that Begich would have won. The Alaska Board of Elections calculated what the results would have been had Begich, not Palin, come second. Their conclusion was that Begich would have won by a little over 5%, 52.6%-47.4%. The 47.4% is close to what the opponent of Don Young, a 50 year incumbent, won in 2018 and 2020 (46.53% and 45.31%). While it still represents a swing from both the 2020 presidential and House results, using the hypothetical Begich-Peltola count cuts any sort of “Democratic swing” by more than half. Begich wins less than a half percentage point less than Donald Trump did in 2020, and only 1.4% less than Don Young.

Furthermore, it is likely that this count understates Begich’s margin as both the dynamics of the race, in which both Begich and Palin discouraged their voters from choosing the other. If Begich remaining the race hurt Palin, the same dynamic hurt Begich in the count.

 2020 Presidential2020 House Result2022 SpecialShift from PresShift from House %Past Inc
NE-156%-41% Trump60-38% R53%-47% RD+6D+9R
MN – 154%-44% Trump49%-46% R51%-47% RD+3R+1R
NY-1950%-48% Biden55%-43% D52%-48% DD+1R+5D
NY-2354%-43% Trump58%-41% R53%-47%D+4D+6R
AK -At Large53%-43% Trump54%-45% R(v.I)51.5%-48.5% D 52.6%-47.4% R(Begich v Peltola)D+6 (D+3)D+6 (D+2)R

Nonetheless, the Alaskan “swing” does not stand-out among the July/August special elections, even with the “Palin effect” present. When compared to the presidential results, the swing is on par with that in Nebraska’s first district. Interestingly, both Alaska and Nebraska’s first district showed similar swings between 2016 and 2020. Alaska voted 51%-37% for Trump over Clinton in 2016, and then 53%-43% for Trump over Biden. Nebraska’s first district went from 58%-36% Trump in 2016 to 56%-41% in 2020. Biden gained 6% over Clinton in Alaska, and 5% in the Nebraska seat compared with a popular vote gain of 3% nationally over Clinton. Therefore, both of these seats saw swings above the national average, as did New York’s 23rd. What did they all have in common?

All three are heavily white, with a split between a rural population and one major city anchored by a major college or university. Between 2016 and 2020, those areas swung at a much greater degree than the national average, and Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win Anchorage since LBJ. As the local hub for college-educated white voters in a sea of otherwise rural territory, the main cities in each of these districts attracted a concentration of Democrat partisans.

When we dig deeper into the results, it is clear whose votes determined the seats. In all three cases (Alaska, NE-01, and NY-23) turnout in the county hosting the college town and urban areas greatly exceeded that of the rest of the district. In the case of Nebraska’s First Congressional District, Lancaster County, including the state capitol of Lincoln and more importantly the University of Nebraska’s main campus, turned out at 36% compared to 28% for the district as a whole, and went Democrat by a margin of 57%-43%, compared to Biden’s 52%-45% win in the county in 2020. It was the only county Democrats won in the district, but the increased margin, combined with casting nearly two-thirds of the votes in the election, was enough to make the final result 53%-46%, when Biden had lost the seat by 15% in 2020.

New York’s 23rd district is a safely Republican seat, which voted for Donald Trump by 54%-39% in 2016 and 54%-43% in 2020. Yet it includes Tomkins County, the location of Ithaca and Cornell University. In the August special election, Republican Joe Sempolinski won every county but Tomkins, which he lost 86%-14%. Turnout in Tomkins at 24% was almost a third higher than the district’s average of 18%, and that was enough to make the final result 53%-47%.

The other two seats showed slightly different dynamics. While the Democrat candidates improved over Biden’s performance in Minnesota’s First District and New York’s 19th, both have a much more substantial Democrat history down ballot. Minnesota’s First District was held by current Democrat Governor Tim Walz until 2018, when Republicans won it by 1%, increasing that margin to 3% in 2020. The 4% margin in the 2022 special election is the best Republican performance there since 2004.

An even more dramatic gap between the presidential numbers and historic congressional performance can be seen in New York’s 19th district. The district voted for Joe Biden by a 50% to 48% margin in 2020, which makes the 51%-49% victory of Democrat Pat Ryan over Republican Marc Molinaro look like a swing toward Democrats from 2020. That is how it has been widely interpreted. But New York is a parochial state, and the better comparison is likely not Joe Biden’s 2% victory margin, but the 55% to 43% margin former Congressman Anthony Delgado won it by in 2020. In that case Molinaro did 5% better than the 2020 Republican candidate, and Ryan 5% worse.

This points to another factor: an incumbency effect. All but one of these seats had Republican incumbents, and their absence removed any sort of name recognition or personal support factor, especially important in Alaska. That New York’s 19th district, the only seat with a special election which featured a Democrat incumbent also featured a 5% swing to the Republican candidate reinforces the idea that we should expect a similar incumbency effect to have been at play in Alaska and Nebraska, explaining the “disappointing” GOP performance.

When we factor out incumbency, what are we left with? Two safely GOP seats, which trended Democrat not just compared to 2020 House results, but also presidential outcomes, in Nebraska’s 1st and New York’s 23rd. Each featured a departing GOP incumbent and was anchored around a major college town which turned out at a much higher rate than the district as a whole. We have two seats, Minnesota’s 1st and New York’s 19th, which produced results similar to the 2020 presidential results or slightly more Democrat, but showed a swing to the GOP compared to the 2020 House results. This effect was small in Minnesota where there had been a GOP incumbent, but large in the New York seat where the incumbent was a Democrat. Finally, there was Alaska, where if we use the Palin numbers, we get a result akin to Nebraska’s 1st and New York’s 23rd, implying that running Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate is akin to adding a major University town to a district. If, however, we use the Begich hypothetical count, the Alaska results look far more like the Minnesota seats.

What can we conclude? There is evidence that areas which were rapidly trending Democrat, namely white areas with a high percentage of residents holding college degrees, especially college towns, will continue to do so in 2022. In turn, areas which are trending Republican, such as Minnesota’s First District, will also continue to do so. Rather than a new realignment, 2022 seems to be shaping up to be a sequel of 2020.

But the problem for Democrats is that a sequel to 2020 is precisely what they do not want. There are far more formerly swing areas in Florida and the Texas border which are swinging against them than there are safely Republican areas which might drift into being slightly less lopsidedly Republican. Despite their “success,” Democrats still ultimately lost the special elections in Nebraska, Minnesota, and New York-23, indicating that anything short of every possible factor working in their favor will not be enough. Even if they insist on focusing only on the presidential topline numbers, Democrats still did worse in the House vote in Minnesota’s 1st than they did in 2018 and 2020. Doing better in areas they lose won’t help them when they lose additional seats elsewhere and are failing to win back their blue-collar base. In that sense, Republicans should be concerned, but not overly panicked.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.

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2 months ago

GOV ABBOT: Please send 15 busloads of illegals to San Francisco next week

2 months ago


2 months ago

LAW OF THE UNIVERSE: The incumbent party NEVER wins a mid-year election. NEVER !
Combine that fact ( not opinion) with the FACT that this administration has led the country to
hell ( not opinion) and the only discussion is whether the dems will play any role in fed govt in
2023-2024. The question is whether or not the repubs blow it again as they did in Trumps first
2 years when Paul Ryan alone stopped Trump. I ask if the repubs gain control of the house and
senate, will they do anything with it ? Maybe. But don’t be surprised if the repubs blow their
advantage and do nothing. I watched this story too many times

2 months ago

All the bribes to get the vote. The people paying the bill will be the receiver by paying 52% income tax. Imagine a college degree first job where you start at 90,000 a year but the income tax is 47,000 of your money.Go eat , rent, buy car, marry, kids etc. You will pay, pay, pay for services you may never use… Govt controls everything of your life . Sweden accepts visitors,You will be back.Vote for common sense Vote America first.

2 months ago

I think there is something missing in all of these numbers. THE HIDDEN VOTE. There are a lot of people who don’t advertise who they vote for or are afraid to. Some of those wait to vote only in general elections. So there is no realistic count until the election takes place. Remember Trump\Clinton…..she was supposed to win by 10%, and Trump took it by a land slide. You know the old saying, “don’t count the chickens before they hatch”…..that goes for the whole spectrum of voters. The important thing is VOTE, and don’t underestimate its power.

2 months ago

They continue to say this publicly because they know the midterms, like 2020 will be rigged in their favor. This is why they continue to be arrogant and bold in continuing their pathway to destroying America.

Tim Toroian
2 months ago

Local Democrats are simply stupid for they have no idea what hell hole people like Pelosi are leading. Most probably have not read H.R.1and its implications that would permit illegals to vote and have peons deciding how our money should be spent. And they have to be so mathematically dense they have no idea how much we are currently spending on them. And they listen to Bumble Brain tell lies when he says “deficit reduction” will pay for student loan forgiveness. How many other things has he told us that trillion will pay for? Deficit reduction pays for nothing, it just means some money we didn’t have wasn’t spent, and it doesn’t create money. Debt reduction might help a bit.
And when Democratic gun owners have jackboots come for their guns they will wonder what in Sam Hill happened?

Philip Hammersley
2 months ago

And whose allies set up the “ranked choice” system? Lisa Murkowski’s, so that she could win despite not having much Republican support!

2 months ago

All of these statics have little recourse to the American people if the democrats continue to control both houses. Looking at this story seems a lot have changes have been made to elect a demo?

Dr. George R. Rivera, Jr.
2 months ago

All of this is interesting as fodder for Democrats in election year politicking. However, in the end (where it really matters) Palin will win the general and go to Washington.

THX 1138
2 months ago

The Democrat Party.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

2 months ago
Reply to  THX 1138

they are not democrats, they are COMMUNISTS!!!!!

2 months ago

Ranked choice voting, which is what the author quickly dismisses, is why the Democrat in Alaska won. The top two Republican candidates essentially cancelled each other out via this system. Leaving the Democrat with a clear path to victory the way the votes are ultimately counted. The system of ranked choice voting is specifically designed to favor fringe candidates with less than majority support, which is why the Democrats are so obsessed with trying to make it the standard nation-wide.

As for a Democrat “blue wave”, that is largely also a fantasy as much as the “red wave” is in Congress. Especially when you look at how poorly most Republicans are campaigning in what should be a cake walk for them. Sure in Deep Blue states like California, New York, etc., a Democrat win is a given since the Democrat voters out number the Republican voters by 2, 3 or more times. Unless the Democrats in those states all stay home, it is nearly impossible for a Republican to win there and the type of Republican that would appeal to them is literally a Democrat with just an (R) after their name. In short a RINO, which doesn’t change the balance much.

Democrat voters simply can’t associate all the pain they feel daily via high crime, inflation, declining schools, the micro-management of their lives and everything else with the socialist policies the Democrat politicians they voted for have implemented. They honestly do believe whatever the msm tells them and think all the man-made crisis we’ve experienced in the last 20 months has NOTHING to do with the slew of disastrous policies and decisions made by the Democrats that completely control the federal government. The term “useful idiot” is an apt and accurate description in that most Democrat voters can’t connect the dots even if someone stands in front of them and walks them through each step of each crisis that has been manufactured over the last 20 months. Thus the description of idiot truly does apply.

Do NOT assume Democrat voters make choices based on reason and logic. They don’t share our values in terms of respect for the Constitution and rule of law or a desire for smaller, less intrusive government. They largely want the complete opposite in most cases. They vote based on emotional pleas. Thus the constant screaming and yelling without understand the basics of the issue they are screaming and yelling about. They vote based on what they “feel is right” or “that sounds like it is the right thing to do” at the moment, without any real introspection separating their emotional desire from predictable outcomes.

J. Farley
2 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

You are so right about why good Candidates don’t get Elected; Primary’s should only be the top 2 Candidates and let the chips fall where they may. They need to fix the system!

2 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

So right. Dem robots are not capable of introspection. Instead they ruminate in a stew of implanted thoughts and hurt feelings. They hardly ever look at their own lives in an effort to come to grips with why they hurt. Instead they project, blame and vilify scapegoats. For these reasons they’re not going to ‘come around’. A big part of why they are like this is the exponential growth of the psychotherapeutic ethos that took hold in the seventies. In this mindset there is a promised land of no emotional suffering, only joy. Perpetual joy is seen as being blocked by conservatives. In 1980 the depression and ww2 generation still dominated. They didnt demand happiness, only the right to work and be left alone. Many of these were dems of the fdr era but they moved en masse to the reagan camp after seeing what true weakness looked like with carter. Theyre gone now and in their place emotional cripples bleat to be taken care of.

2 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

” the description of idiot truly does apply”
Which is why Lenin coined the term in the early 1900s before the revolution took place. It is a timeless term if you follow how foolishly people have given up their freedoms to dishonest politicians promising safety and “free everything”. Bread and circuses.

J. Farley
2 months ago

This proves how stupid People are, they will vote away their Freedom for Free stuff, but little do they know that at some point, Government will get it all back, through higher Taxes and Fee’s.
Those who think that the Government will keep giving you stuff for free can’t be very smart, eventualy they must take from them to give to someone else, there will always be new groups of winners and losers, sooner or later everybody’s OX gets Gored.
You College Educated People wise up, stop the free stuff, Protect your Freedoms.

anna hubert
2 months ago
Reply to  J. Farley

Our school system turns out brain dead people

J. Farley
2 months ago
Reply to  anna hubert

Amen to that Anna!

Douglas C
2 months ago
Reply to  J. Farley

Yes finally – some brutally honest introspective truths about the American people in these comments. Truths that no Politician dares speak of, but probably should. As individual American citizens we have let ourselves off the hook for far too long. Our once in a millennium nation has not come to its present state of dysphoria by accident.  Free people get to choose. Millions of actions and reactions by individual citizens over time creates a national character. Cumulative votes freely given to both major Parties over decades result in policies to live by. We, the American people, until relatively recently in our history were intuitively fair minded, bold, ambitious, excited by the future, common sense practical, and exceptionally good at living mostly purpose led, productive, wholesome, and virtuous lives inside the bedrock of family and marriage. Our cultural norms and voting habits once bore this out more often than not.  We were admired because we more consistently held to this exceptional norm than any other place on the planet.  But today, the average US citizen/resident of 21st century America is not only no longer exceptional, but on the whole unremarkable, happily mediocre, too often sidelined by irrational fears, more interested in appearance than actual accomplishment, inured to violence, and sadly indifferent to the Republic for which they once proudly stood. A wart on the proud face of generations past, many of whom gave their lives with the spirit of this now nearly empty lyric, “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”. Cry all you want about your/our leaders. But the grotesque truth is that our democratically elected Representative Government and non-governmental leadership at all levels, reflects the majority characteristics of the population that it Governs and manages. Leadership and management are what they are because they are us. (I know, that last sentence sounds way too Obama-esque). And just what are we in 21st century America?  Here’s my overly harsh and cynical analysis. A nation with way too many thoughtless trashy defilers of the environment, thieves, cheats, deviants, nihilists, and free riders wallowing in substance abuse and work avoidance. Eager dupes for every apocalyptic narrative churned out it seems, by Mad Magazine. Navy men in a dress and Revlon. Army leadership mesmerize by race and gender to the exclusion of readiness and war winning. Navel gazing screen junkies with little civic virtue. Freakishness of appearance now stands in for actual thoughtful individualism. Some celebrity mothers publicly brag about de-masculinizing their male child, and get knowing nods in the LSM instead of a visit from child protective services. Too many porn-soaked pathetic lives lived from a couch for your first 30 years. Closing in on majority, waiting on their government maintenance debit card. A bunch of head down over medicated middle American ungulates nervously hoping the herd effect will protect them. Next generations who aspire to own nothing, know nothing outside their screens, wait for others to set their future, and always defer to central authority.  
Cheating aside for a moment, we seem to have the nation too many asked for. Hope we can begin the rescue in November.

2 months ago
Reply to  J. Farley

“Those who think that the Government will keep giving you stuff for free can’t be very smart, eventualy they must take from them to give to someone else”
Which is why, 6 months into the soviet communist experiment, the people realized they had been fed a line of BULLSH-T and started to agitate for a return to before communism. That is when Leon Trotsky sent in the red army to ANIHILATE any and all dissent!!!!!

Myrna Wade
2 months ago

People who cannot see the devastation so many democrat actions are causing are blind.
Power is in the hands of robber barons.

2 months ago

If 2 years of Joe hasn’t taught all voters that we need to sweep this election with republican candidates, then we republicans need to learn the lesson of Obama’s second term. Americans clearly want a government unlike Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump. I don’t believe this to be the case, but I was shocked when Obama was elected to a 2nd term. It is sad to see this country going down the tubes, but if we don’t take the house and senate after the damage this clown has done we need to realize that we don’t have a chance to save our country. I thank God I am 68 years old, hopefully will not be around to see the total destruction of the U.S.A. I feel sorry for the generations to come that will live under Chinese rule, they are not going to like it, but we don’t seem to be able to reason with them. God Bless America.

2 months ago
Reply to  Moses

“Obama was elected to a 2nd term”
as much as I now dislike romney, I believe that election was stolen too. They have been pulling these stunts at the state level for years AND GETTING AWAY WITH IT so they finally brought it to the national level with obama’s second run. They didn’t realize how big Trump was going to trounce them in 2016 so the cheating they had in place was not sufficient to offset his victory. Look how badly they had to cheat to get biden in office!

2 months ago

If after the last 2 years the country does not wake up & see how everything is going downhill & all prices are going up , then I have little hope for AMERICA being the land of the free. If we vote GOP in Nov to retake the majority in both Houses of Congress we will be able to turn the tables

legally present
2 months ago

Sounds like America’s youth are voting heavily Democrat, guess Joey’s making us pay for part of their college expenses worked. Good job fools, it won’t be pretty for you going forward.

Michael Ruppert
2 months ago

Is that generation taking bribes?

2 months ago

They dont look at it like a bribe at all ,, not the way they were taught in college ,, they look at it as a favor from our great government ,, they have no thought of whos going to pay for it later

Stephen Russell
2 months ago

Show direction of country ahead

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