What Next: Gabrielle Giffords' Resignation

With Gabrielle Giffords' resignation today, it looks like Arizona's 8th Congressional District is up for grabs.  Though Governor Jan Brewer has 3 days to announce a special election, the primary looks like it will be in April, with the general election in June.  Though Giffords could have kept her seat through the end of her term, her decision to resign now and focus on her recovery has thrown the political future of the seat up in the air bit. The special election is sure to receive significant media attention.  As a rule, special elections are over-analyzed by the press:  the dictum often seems to be "All politics is local, unless it's a special election.  In that case, it's a referendum on the President."  Remember all the lessons we learned in the 2009 NY-23 election?  Neither do I.   But that's not going to stop the torrent of coverage as the media tries to figure out who is going to win the presidential race based on the special election results in June.  Of course, the media coverage would be high anyway given the horrific shooting last year.  Right now, in some undisclosed location, CNN's Best Political Team on TV is getting prepared for a full scale deployment to Arizona.

We'll set aside for a later day just how consequential the special elections are going to be on a national level (hint: according to Gaddie, Bullock and Buchanan, [gated] not much), and focus for now on what we should expect the special election to look like.

First, a quick primer on special elections, courtesy of Monkey Cage co-founder Lee Sigelman's 1981 LSQ article [gated].

1) Special elections turnout is really low - about 50% less than off-year general election turnout.  [For context, off year general election turnout generally hovers around 35-40% of the eligible voting public.  So turnout in the special election is expected to be really, really low.]

->The takeaway point: What is effect of low turnout on the outcome?  Surprisingly, pretty negligible.

2) Special election outcomes are more competitive that the preceding general election.

-> Takeaway point: Given that Giffords won by a margin of only 1.5% in 2010, that means we're looking at what could be a really close race.

3) In the majority of the special elections, House seats remain in the control of the party that already holds them.  But, when the control changes, the president's party generally loses.

-> Takeaway point: The Democrats have some advantage heading in to the election given that it's been a Democratic seat since 2006, but Obama's low popularity is cause for concern.

4) The party that wins the special election almost always (96% of the time) retains control of the seat in the subsequent general election.

-> Takeaway point: Both parties should really throw their weight into this special election.  The winner of the special election will have the advantage in name recognition and campaign contributions heading in to November.

What looks good for the Republicans?

1) Republican presidential candidates have carried Arizona's 8th District in each of the three elections (Bush '00 had a margin of +2 pts, '04 by +7 pts, McCain '08 by +6 pts).  Although the GOP presidential candidates haven't won by much, the fact that it's a Republican leaning district is certainly good for them.

2) Gabrielle Giffords' husband, the former Navy captain and astronaut Mark Kelly, will not enter the race.  Though the research focuses on widows, Diane Kincaid [gated] as well as Solowiej and Brunell [gated], find that voters tend to support the relatives of  spouses succeeding their partners into Congress.  Moreover, given his profile as an astronaut, he may have had an advantage over other political amateurs.  The GOP must breathed a sigh of relief when Kelly announced that he will not run.

3) For all intents and purposes, the election has been moved up five months, and this is worse for the Democrats than the Republicans.  The dance card of Republican challengers has already been more or less compiled given that they were already planning on opposing Giffords in November, and the serious candidates had already been preparing for the election.  Moreover, the list of challengers is pretty strong: Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010 has already filed the paperwork to run again; and state Senator Frank Antenori is also expected to run.

By contrast, the Democrats aren't nearly as prepared.  The foundations for campaigns take time to establish, and given the truncated timetable, the Democrats are a little behind the eight ball.   When Giffords initially made her decision several days ago, the Democratic party hadn't yet contacted candidates.   This isn't a massive setback - there are generally several quality candidates waiting in the wings to succeed a member of Congress - but it's certainly a disadvantage.

So what's good for the Democrats?

1) Gabrielle Giffords is still going to play an active role in the campaign.  The candidate who receives her endorsement stands to inherit quite a bit of good will (not to mention campaign contributions).  This is particularly true if the Democrats can coalesce behind one candidate quickly, and use the time the Republicans are duking it out in the primary to help work on building up a general election campaign.

2) The district is going to be re-drawn in 2012, and the new district is widely expected to have more Democrats than it does now.  That is, while the special election will still be in  the current district, the general election will be in the new one.  So even if the Democrats lose in the special election, this could be one of those 4% of elections where the special election result gets overturned in the subsequent general election.  By contrast, if they win in the special election, the prospects of holding on the seat in general election look really good.

So who is going to win?

Way too early to say.  We'll check back in with a guess on the electoral outcome when the slate of candidates is announced.  At a minimum, this should be interesting, while also presenting a welcome diversion from the glut of news stories on the Republican presidential primary.