By: Jordan Ragusa and Gibbs Knotts
Last week’s special election in Kansas was the first test of Donald Trump’s presidential coattails. While Trump’s name was not on the ballot, his extraordinarily low approval rating had the potential to sink the Republican candidate and turn a deep-red district blue.
Although the district remained red, the result reveals a lot about how Trump’s presidency will shape elections in the future.
Few outside the Jayhawk State were paying close attention to this race, and few thought the Democrat could win. Just six months ago, Tea Party favorite Mike Pompeo defeated his Democratic opponent by a whopping 31 points. Trump nominated Pompeo to head the CIA, triggering the special election.
But last week’s results were much closer, as Republican Ron Estes defeated Democrat James Thompson by just 7 percent of the vote. Something, it seems, changed the electoral landscape in a hurry.
Some commentators say Trump has nothing to do with the strong Democratic showing. Sam Brownback made such deep and unpopular cuts to education that Estes had to distance himself from the Republican governor. “All politics is local,” as Tip O’Neil would say.
Yet our research, published in 2016, shifts much of that blame back onto Trump. Any sitting president’s approval rating is indeed a key factor in special election outcomes. Our study is based on data from every special election between 1995 and 2014.
We find that local factors, such as the racial composition and partisan makeup of the district, certainly matter. And of course, candidate characteristics always play a role in election outcomes. But an unpopular president can also affect the performance of his party’s candidate.
This is a relatively new trend in American politics. According to other studies analyzing elections between 1960 and 1980 there was a weaker connection between congressional elections and presidential politics.
Elections in this period were “candidate-centered” and less “party-centered.”
With the rise of political polarization in recent decades, however, the president matters in these races. In fact, our research identifies 2004 as the year when presidential approval began to have a significant effect on special election outcomes.
Based on the result in Kansas’s fourth district, most political commentators will be eagerly watching the special election in Georgia, and upcoming contests in Montana, California, and South Carolina. The special election in Georgia’s sixth district is particularly intriguing since Trump won this district by just 1.5 percent.
Given our research on this subject, we expect Trump’s low approval rating to be a strong factor in that race. In addition, the Georgia contest involves a well-funded Democrat, 30-year old Jon Ossoff, who has raised substantially more money than his Republican opponent.
Looking beyond these upcoming contests, research has shown that special elections are predictive of general election results. In other words, these contests will provide clues about whether Democrats have a chance to win back control of Congress in the 2018 midterm.
Gibbs Knotts is professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston. Jordan Ragusa is assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston.