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5 Reasons Democrat Conor Lamb could win Pennsylvania's 18th District special election

Democrats are winning Republican-held seats in all sorts of elections since Donald Trump became president. They have ...

Posted: Mar 1, 2018 4:06 PM
Updated: Mar 1, 2018 4:06 PM

Democrats are winning Republican-held seats in all sorts of elections since Donald Trump became president. They have flipped 39 state legislature seats. They won a US Senate seat in ruby Red Alabama back in December. They have not, however, actually won a seat in the US House that Republicans held at the beginning of Trump's term.

That may change on March 13 when Democrat Conor Lamb takes on Republican Rick Saccone in the Pennsylvania 18th congressional district's special election. The seat was vacated by Republican Tim Murphy following a sexual harassment scandal.

At first glance, the district looks bad for Lamb. Trump won it by about 20 percentage points in 2016.

Yet, most observers agree that even though Saccone is probably a slight favorite, Lamb has a decent shot of pulling off a stunning victory.

Here are five reasons to believe that Lamb may just win on March 13.

1. The polling is tight

A Monmouth University poll taken in the middle of February put Saccone up by a 49% to 46% margin. The average of all public polls taken in the race have shown a similarly tight race.

To put it mildly, a 3-percentage-point lead isn't anything close to a sure thing in a House special election. I went back and looked at how off polls taken within three weeks of House special elections since 2004 were. Of the 75 polls in this database, the average absolute error was about 5 percentage points. The true margin of error (i.e. the 95 confidence interval) is closer to +/- 13 percentage points! You may remember when a special election poll taken with a few weeks of the Georgia 6th special election in 2017 had Democrat Jon Ossoff ahead by 7 points. He lost by 4.

The polling in Pennsylvania 18 indicates that anything from about a 13-point Saccone win to a 10-point Lamb win is realistically plausible.

2. The trend in special elections during Trump's presidency

Democrats have so far been outperforming their presidential baseline by about 13 points in Trump-era special state and federal elections. If you were to take into account the Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama margin and the Trump versus Hillary Clinton margin in the districts and states with special elections so far and then tried to project how the Pennsylvania 18 special election would go, you'd expect Saccone to emerge victorious by less than 8 points.

But as I showed last week, Democratic candidates sometimes outperform and underperform this baseline projection. To boot, you'd expect Lamb to win about a third of the time given how other special elections have gone during the Trump presidency.

Further, Democrats have actually been doing even better than that 13 point overperformance looking at only the seven federal special elections held during the Trump presidency. Taking only those into account, Saccone would be favored to win by just over a percentage point. A forecast like that means this election is far too close to consider safe for Saccone.

3. Trump's relative lack of popularity

Yes, Trump won by 20 points in Pennsylvania 18, but a look at the Monmouth poll. His approval rating in the district is just 51% to a 47% disapproval rating. If voters were casting a ballot solely on how they felt about Trump, a tight race would be expected.

The 16-point drop in Trump's net approval rating (approval rating - disapproval rating) in the district versus his margin in 2016 in the district fits with what we're seeing nationally. In the latest CNN poll for example, Trump's net approval rating with voters is -17 points. That is 15 points below his -2 point margin (i.e. loss in the popular vote) in the 2016 election.

All Lamb needs to take him over the line is a slight turnout advantage or for a few voters who like Trump casting their ballot for Lamb. Lamb is more popular than Saccone in the Monmouth poll, so this alone could put him over the top.

4. The Democratic Party registration edge

So far in special elections during the Trump era, it turns out that the 2012 presidential results in a district or state have actually been a far better indicator of the outcome than the 2016 results. That suggests that ancestrally Democratic areas that went heavily for Trump may be reverting back to form.

Pennsylvania 18 is an historically Democratic area. Democrat Walter Mondale won it in 1984, even as Republican Ronald Reagan was winning by nearly 20 points nationally.

Democrats still hold a 6-point party registration edge in the district, and the Monmouth poll projects an electorate that is 51% Democrat to 45% Republican.

Of course, Trump isn't disliked in the district like he is nationally.

So to get an idea on how the party registration and presidential approval might interact with each other in Pennsylvania 18, I went back and looked at the last midterm election (i.e. when there was no presidential race on the ballot). Specifically, I examined the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Elections Study, a non-probability survey that gives a lot of pollsters heart palpitations. So, with that grain of salt, it asked voters (who registration records indicate voted) nationally their choice in that year's House elections and their approval of the president. I only investigated those voters who had a party registration on file that was Democratic or Republican and were voting in districts in which a Democrat and a Republican were on the ballot.

To my surprise, party registration had a lot of explanatory power in a person's House choice even after controlling for the voter's feelings toward the President. Do keep in mind a special election can be a different beast than a midterm election. Still, the trends of 2014 indicate that a close race is to be expected in a district like Pennsylvania 18 where Trump's net approval rating in the district is just above water and where Democrats hold a small registration advantage.

Keep in mind that in 2014, Murphy was unopposed. So this analysis doesn't include him or Pennsylvania 18 in particular. When looking at only open seats, the analysis on the interaction between presidential approval and party registration holds.

5. The district is well educated

When some people think of southwest Pennsylvania (where Pennsylvania 18 is located) and the Rust Belt, they probably think of voters who lack a college degree. That's part of the reason southwestern Pennsylvania went so heavily for Trump.

Pennsylvania 18 doesn't really fit that mold, however. According to the 2016 American Community Survey, 37% of all adults 25 years and older in Pennsylvania 18 hold at least a college degree. That's higher than any other congressional district in that part of Pennsylvania. It's also higher than the 31% of Americans 25 years and older nationally who have at least a college degree.

That's a good sign for Lamb in Pennsylvania 18 because Democrats are cleaning up among college educated voters nationally. The most recent CNN poll, for example, has Democrats ahead by 30 points among them on the generic congressional ballot. Even among white college graduates (who make up most of the college graduates in Pennsylvania 18), Democrats are leading by 19 percentage points.

In Monmouth's poll, Lamb was up just 5 points among college educated voters. If he can push that margin just a little bit more towards the national margin Democrats enjoy among college educated voters, he'll emerge victorious.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 343505

Reported Deaths: 7543
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds23932444
DeSoto23229283
Harrison20527329
Rankin15411291
Jackson15232252
Madison10959227
Lee10719179
Jones9047169
Forrest8723159
Lauderdale7884244
Lowndes7054151
Lamar702989
Lafayette6548124
Washington5595139
Pearl River5196152
Bolivar4954134
Oktibbeha494398
Panola4771112
Warren4728128
Marshall4701106
Pontotoc447773
Union433279
Monroe4330137
Neshoba4281181
Hancock428088
Lincoln4176116
Pike3667113
Leflore3627125
Tate353388
Alcorn350974
Sunflower347694
Scott341176
Adams340988
Yazoo339376
Copiah324968
Simpson322891
Itawamba314680
Coahoma314085
Tippah306568
Prentiss298863
Covington293484
Leake285475
Marion284181
Wayne277543
George272251
Grenada269488
Newton262364
Tishomingo239770
Winston236784
Jasper230648
Stone229637
Attala226373
Chickasaw219060
Holmes200174
Clay197654
Clarke186880
Tallahatchie183742
Calhoun181332
Smith179235
Yalobusha171540
Walthall145748
Lawrence142826
Greene140134
Amite137543
Noxubee135235
Perry133538
Montgomery133044
Carroll126431
Webster121232
Jefferson Davis116734
Tunica114227
Benton106725
Claiborne105331
Kemper102429
Humphreys100133
Franklin87923
Quitman84719
Choctaw82619
Wilkinson78032
Jefferson71328
Sharkey51618
Issaquena1736
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 587405

Reported Deaths: 11536
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson853851591
Mobile48932864
Madison37517533
Shelby27280257
Tuscaloosa27171465
Montgomery26172627
Baldwin25399329
Lee17224181
Calhoun15401334
Morgan15170291
Etowah14954370
Marshall13116235
Houston12077293
Elmore10915219
St. Clair10763252
Limestone10725158
Cullman10546205
Lauderdale10255254
DeKalb9508192
Talladega8949188
Walker7793288
Autauga7563114
Jackson7400117
Blount7362139
Colbert6703142
Coffee6365132
Dale5650117
Russell480243
Chilton4771117
Covington4749125
Franklin458181
Tallapoosa4519156
Escambia441383
Chambers3949125
Dallas3743163
Clarke371263
Marion3463107
Pike332579
Lawrence3263100
Winston298773
Bibb290465
Geneva283983
Marengo262467
Barbour250961
Pickens245562
Butler240872
Hale235578
Fayette227065
Henry213945
Monroe202141
Randolph201144
Cherokee199248
Washington185239
Macon170552
Crenshaw168358
Clay166259
Cleburne161345
Lamar151038
Lowndes145455
Wilcox132331
Bullock126542
Conecuh121332
Coosa118329
Perry110528
Sumter110333
Greene99137
Choctaw64425
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The heat wave that controlled our area over the past several days is now behind us. The forecast for the next week looks a bit cooler & less humid.
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