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Silver: Two Elections 'Ominous' for Dems

There's no denying the GOP crowing rights for their twin victories in NY-9 and NV-2 yesterday. Stat wizard Nate Silver reviews the vote and rolls out a grim (for Dems) assessment in today's edition of his Five Thirty Eight blog. First, he acknowledges the special circumstances in New York :

There are good reasons to think that local issues may have loomed especially large in New York's 9th Congressional District, where the Republican Bob Turner won on Tuesday. President Obama had significantly underperformed his Democratic predecessors in the district in 2008, and the large split in voting between the Brooklyn and Queens portions of the district -- the Brooklyn parts are more heavily Jewish -- implies that Israel-related issues may have played a role.

There were other local factors as well: influential endorsements for Mr. Turner by Democratic leaders like former Mayor Ed Koch and the Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and local rabbis; the close timing of the election with the Sept. 11 anniversary; the fact that the district had been vacated by a Democrat, Anthony Weiner, in a scandal; and perhaps gay marriage in a district that is economically liberal but fairly religious, with pockets of social conservatism.

Still, even if those issues played a role, even if they swung the result, the Democrat David Weprin would likely have performed better had the national environment been stronger for his party.

Silver crunches the numbers and then analyzes the NY election in light of the "partisan voting index" ("a measure of how the district voted relative to others in the past two presidential elections."). Silver concludes that the Republican victor, Bob Turner, pulled off a net swing of +18 percent from the p.v.i.

Silver runs the Nevada results through the p.v.i. analysis:

The Nevada Second, for instance, has a P.V.I. of Republican plus-5, meaning that the Republican candidate would be expected to perform 5 points better there than a Republican might nationally. Since a vote for the Republican is (usually) a vote against the Democrat, you need to double that number to project the margin of victory. In this case, that would imply a Republican win by 10 points given average candidates and a neutral overall political environment.

The Republican Mark Amodei, however, leads by 22 points as of this writing, an easy victory, meaning that he overperformed the P.V.I. by 12 points.

Ouch. No matter how you spin it, there's no avoiding the conclusion that Republicans did substantially better than expected in Tuesday's elections.

Silver acknowledges the big Democratic win in NY-26 in May, a +17 swing from the p.v.i., noting that Obama's approvals were much higher then, along with the less impressive Democratic July win in CA-36, where Dems underperformed in p.v.i. terms. He averages the four special congressional elections of 2011 and finds a score of R+7 and concludes that "Democrats may still be locked in a 2010-type political environment."

Worse, Silver adds that special elections have a "statistically significant correlation to the outcome of the next general election," although "...the relationship is weak and frequently runs in the wrong direction, as it did in 2010." He points out that special elections are weak measures of anti-incumbent sentiment, since there are no incumbents on the ballot. He also notes that polls indicate Dems are "roughly tied" with the GOP in therms of the generic ballot polls for House races.

Silver concludes "Nevertheless, these are waves that portend trouble...At the very minimum, they imply a reduction in the odds that after three consecutive "wave" elections, 2012 will show a tidal shift back toward Democrats."

A more optimistic analysis for Dems would point out that Dems are 2 and 2 in 2011 special elections. There are 13+ months left and, if the economy begins to turn around faster than expected, all bets are off. Nonetheless, as Silver makes clear, the possibility of a broad rout of Democratic candidates is a very real concern, and President Obama will have to campaign harder and smarter to prevent it.