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How Democratic election losses are spun into wins

There are a million ways to parse the data—except one.


David Gilmour


Published Jun 21, 2017   Updated May 23, 2021, 2:18 am CDT

Republican Karen Handel was victorious over Democrat Jon Ossoff in Tuesday’s special election, winning a House seat representing Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a longtime Republican stronghold.

In fact, the Democrats have been defeated in all four special elections this year, including races in Montana, Kansas, Georgia, and South Carolina. So, why are some Democrats spinning the straight defeat as promising?

Well, there was a lot riding on Georgia 6th’s special election.

Of all four districts up for grabs, Georgia 6th was touted by both the Republican and Democrat parties as indicative of the America’s sentiment towards President Donald Trump. The race for it was billed as a referendum on the president, which is how the competition for the vacant House seat became the most expensive ever—both candidates pouring a total of $50 million into their campaigns.

As the hype climaxed, even Trump decided to weigh in on behalf of the Republican candidate.

Despite the financial investment put into both campaigns, however, only 58 percent of registered voters from the district were motivated to cast a ballot, compared to an 81.2 percent turnout for the presidential election last November.

So, when Republican Handel won over the Democrat Osoff by securing 51.87 percent of the final vote, Democrats had quite a bit of reflecting to do. It was close, no doubt, but if this was a referendum on Trump then the fact that Handel outperformed the president’s 50.44 percent win in the 2016 election might be telling of something.

With Trump’s approval rating consistently reported as waning and such massive resources thrown at Ossoff’s campaign, the disappointment was immense.

Mainstream publications published a variety of takes on the results, from frustrated calls for a change of Democratic strategy to generous interpretations that see the results as nothing short of promising.

One Washington Post analysis, for example, said that the Democrats were “overperforming” and that the result was “still a form of clear progress.” The piece pointed to how Democrats moving for congressional seats have won more support than either 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or former President Barack Obama. The Cook Political Report analysis came to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, data journalists at Vox pointed to ““4 charts showing Democrats are gaining a lot of ground.” The data shows shrinking margins in all districts between both parties but laments the failure of the Democrats to capitalize “despite months of a Republican president being mired in scandal and a Republican Congress playing hot potato with an unpopular health bill.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that “Democrats seethed” at the Georgia loss, depicting a party that was taking the loses hard. “Our brand is worse than Trump,” Ohio Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan told the paper, before expressing hope that the special election would spark a party-wide wake-up call and a reason to restrategize.

New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait, however, branded reactions like this a “freak-out.”

“It’s certainly true that Jon Ossoff’s underperformance of the polls (he was nearly tied in the polling average, and is losing by almost 4 points) should incrementally adjust one’s view of the Democrats’ prospects. But the reason the party has lost all four special elections is glaringly simple,” Chait wrote.

“It is not some deep and fatal malady afflicting its messaging, platform, consultants, or ad spending allocation methods. Republicans have won the special elections because they’ve all been held in heavily Republican districts.”

Strictly looking at the data, Republicans are winning historically conservative seats—but Democrats are gaining ground, just not enough to win. Election data can be sifted, sorted, and shaped to tell virtually any story you want to tell. It can give beleaguered Democrats hope or teach them to find a new path. What it cannot do is turn a win into a loss.

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*First Published: Jun 21, 2017, 1:46 pm CDT