Typically, partisans and pundits look at the outcomes of special elections in the year after a new president is elected to understand voter sentiment heading into the mid-terms. It seemed clear in 2017, for instance, that Democratic candidates would have an advantage in the 2018 mid-terms. In special elections for Congress prior to 2018, Democratic candidates tended to win by larger margins, often larger by double-digits, than Hillary Clinton did in those same districts in 2016.[
Since the sentiment driving the ballot questions is aligned with partisan divisions about how the coronavirus pandemic has been managed, and since all voters could cast a ballot on these questions, it is tempting to view the recent primary as a “special-election test” of what might work in the mid-terms and who will have an advantage.
But there are also reasons to be skeptical that the primary has any meaning beyond itself: the mid-terms are 18 months in the future, not a single candidate has been nominated for any office, and almost no money was spent to encourage voter turnout or voter preference.[
The data we have doesn’t offer convincing evidence that one party has an advantage heading into the mid-terms, at least not yet. Republicans should feel positive about winning the constitutional amendments they supported and perhaps finding some messaging about individual freedom and executive overreach that can resonate in the mid-terms. Democrats should feel good that their turnout levels were not completely eclipsed by Republicans and that independent and unaffiliated voters were probably more in line with their preferences than their opponents’ on the constitutional questions.
This does not discount the political reality that the out-party almost always improves its position in mid-term elections.
Typically, incumbent parties lose seats in Congress and lag a bit down ballot in competitive races. These benefits typically emerge from a backlash against a new president, as a president’s job approval ratings tend to be a good indicator of how big his party’s losses will be. With several competitive US House races and open-seat gubernatorial and US Senate races, Pennsylvania is sure to be a central character in the 2022 mid-term story, but that story is still being written and the 2021 primary provides no real preface.
The most probable message to learn from the 2021 primary is that the state’s voters rarely say “no” to ballot questions.[