A week ago, I called for more restraint in press coverage of tomorrow’s special election in NY-26, which the press has eagerly framed as a referendum on House Republicans’ controversial plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. With some new polling data in over the weekend, it’s time to walk back parts of that post — but also to add a few more notes of caution.
If you haven’t been following the campaign, Democrat Kathy Hochul is mounting a surprisingly strong showing in a traditionally Republican district. (The election is being held because Republican Chris Lee, who won by 48 points just last fall, was found to be sharing beefcake photos of himself with a woman who is not his wife.) And Hochul’s impressive performance comes as she has attacked Republican Jane Corwin for statements in support of a budget plan, pushed by Rep. Paul Ryan and backed by the House GOP, which proposes huge changes to the federal health care program that would push costs onto individuals. That has prompted buoyant Democrats to declare the race a “referendum on Medicare,” and much of the press has followed suit.
My post last week argued that the coverage was sidelining another likely explanation for Hochul’s favorable position—the presence of an independent candidate, Jack Davis, who was disproportionately drawing support from Corwin, and making Hochul competitive at levels of support that were not unusual for a Democrat. But two new polls out over the weekend—one from Siena College (pdf), the other from Public Policy Polling (pdf)—show Hochul continuing to surge even as support for Davis collapses. They also show Hochul’s favorability ratings turning sharply positive, while Corwin’s go south. That turn of events, as Jonathan Chait notes, means that “Davis’s candidacy, while hurting Corwin, is almost certainly not the decisive factor here.”
So why is Hochul doing well? The Siena poll finds that about one-fifth of likely voters lists Medicare as the most pressing concern, more than any other issue. Unsurprisingly, those voters are likely to be Democrats. But they are even more likely to say they plan to vote for Hochul. As Nate Silver writes, those data suggest that Hochul is attracting support from beyond her base, and that the GOP proposal for Medicare “may indeed have made some difference in the race.”
That all counts as evidence for the conventional wisdom, which is that the Medicare debate has been an important factor on Hochul’s favor. (And, as Silver notes, this evidence is just as strong if Corwin ekes out a narrow race but Hochul’s level of support remains high.) Still, there are a number of reasons for the press to be careful about making overbroad claims about what is driving this race, and what it all means for the broader campaign to come.
First, as Silver notes, it’s dangerous to take voters at their word about the reasons behind their decisions. Hochul supporters may be backing her because of Medicare, or they may be listing Medicare as their top issue because they support Hochul and she has spent the last few weeks talking about it relentlessly. (For a fuller exploration of this paradox, see this post from the late Lee Sigelman.) There’s no obvious way for reporters to resolve this dilemma, but it’s important to keep in mind, and reason for humility when making claims about what caused a result.
Second, when specific issues do influence election outcomes, it is often by affecting enthusiasm and turnout, rather than prompting voters to switch sides. Most political reporters probably know this, but it’s good to see them communicating the point to readers. James Hohmann does this nicely with some strong on-the-ground reporting deep into his story on NY-26 for Politico:
the Ryan plan has unquestionably motivated certain voters who were subdued last year.
Ann Phillips, a 60-year-old technical analyst at a plasma donation center, has always voted Democrat but never previously volunteered or gave money. She’s given Hochul $250, knocked on doors and attended the Gillibrand rally.
She pulled from her purse a Congressional Budget Office analysis of Ryan’s budget and argued that it screws Medicare beneficiaries without solving the country’s fiscal problems.
When an issue prompts a voter to start carrying around CBO documents (link here; two demerits to Politico for not providing one) that’s a good sign that it’s resonating. At the same time, Hohmann also reports:
Phillips’s conservative Republican mother is 86. The two normally avoid talking about politics, but she decided the Ryan budget might be a good opportunity to get her aging mother to support Hochul. They went over the CBO report together, but so far her mother is unconvinced.
“To be honest, I don’t think I can sway her,” Phillips said. “We may cancel each other out.”
And finally, whatever impact the Medicare debate is having in this race, it’s just one data point, and not necessarily evidence that the issue will tilt the 2012 campaign toward Democrats. Tom Curry of MSNBC.com, rounding up some of the relevant research, finds that when a series of special elections break the same way, they can have predictive value. In the wake of Hochul’s strong showing, that means upcoming special elections in California and Nevada may warrant some extra attention as politics-watchers try to get a sense of which way the political winds are blowing, and which issues matter most to voters. Until then, it’s worth remembering Silver’s note of caution: “reading too much into the results of any one of them is dangerous.”