At Liberty by Adam Sullivan

A deep red Dem win? Not really

"I Voted" buttons lay in a bowl in this file photo. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette)

What could have been a sleepy Iowa special election crept into the national news this week.

Democrat Phil Miller defeated Republican Travis Harris in Iowa’s 82nd House District, covering Davis County, Van Buren County and part of Jefferson County in southeast Iowa.

As usual, the political class pounced on the results in its ongoing quest to make the earliest possible predictions for next year’s midterm elections and beyond. As usual, they mostly were wrong.

At first glance, the election returns seem like a big political turnaround — the Democratic campaign won by about 10 points in a district where Trump led Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points last November. A strategist with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee reportedly told NBC News that the election was “a testament to Democrats’ strength in deep red districts.”

She must be thinking of some other House District 82. That territory is about as swing as they get in Iowa. It’s been held by a Democrat since before the last time districts were redrawn.

Republicans, Democrats, and no-party voters each make up about a third of the district. According to the most recent data available from the Iowa secretary of state, Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 350.

Left-leaning blog The Intercept proclaimed, “Iowa voters reject transphobia, Democrats win surprise election.”

According to that report, the election turned into a referendum on transgender restroom policy. Republicans aired ads attacking Miller for his vote as a Fairfield School Board member in support of transgender students’ restroom choices.


It seems unlikely to me that restrooms were a driving issue for most voters. Even if it were, a reporter sitting in Washington, D.C., surely couldn’t ascertain as much from vote tallies and YouTube clips, without talking to a single source inside the state.

Special elections tend to be proxy battles between the party infrastructures. With little time to prepare and voter participation typically lower than in general elections, voter turnout is the most important factor for success.

In reality, the Democrats’ victory in this week’s special election is most reasonably attributed to the party’s ability to activate early voters. Harris won more votes on Election Day, in fact, but Miller’s early vote advantage of more than 1,500 was more than enough to secure a majority of the overall votes.

I admit a review of basic campaign tactics wouldn’t motivate or scare people the way prognostication about future elections does. Humans have long obsessed over trying to predict the future, yet when it comes to politics, we’re not very good at it.

A widely cited study from 2011 tracked predictions made by syndicated columnists and TV news commentators. Researchers at Hamilton College found just six of the 26 pundits were more accurate than a coin flip. Of course, that was even before the 2016 election, when nearly every pollster and pundit got it wrong.

What good are forecasts that usually are wrong? We ought to just flip coins and move onto more important things.

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