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Why the New York special election for George Santos’ seat matters

Democrats, when confronted with President Joe Biden’s poor polling numbers, often counter with some form of the following: “Polls are polls, but when people vote, Democrats are doing well.”

The idea being that Democrats have done well in major special and off-year elections since the 2022 midterms.

The special election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District to succeed the infamous George Santos offers perhaps the best chance to test Democrats’ theory ahead of the presidential election.

Does former Rep. Tom Suozzi win in yet another example of Democrats defying national polling trends? Or does Nassau County Legislator Mazi Pilip secure victory, showing how Republicans are winning pivotal races in places Biden comfortably won in 2020?

Yes, we’re looking at just one election on Long Island, but it’s a fascinating one.

As we enter Election Day, the race seems far too close to call. A Newsday/Siena College poll released last week put Suozzi at 48% and Pilip at 44%, a result well within the margin of error. Throw in forecasted bad weather in this Nassau County and eastern Queens district, and we really can’t be certain who will emerge victorious.

The fact that the race is tight makes sense if you look at the district’s recent voting record. I mentioned that Biden carried the seat in 2020 (by 8 points), but local Republicans have been dominating since. They did well in 2023’s local races. GOP candidates for governor and US Senate won the district by margins between 4 and 12 points in 2022, as did Santos.

This means that even a narrow Suozzi victory would be impressive for Democrats given how well Republicans have done in other elections in the area.

Indeed, outside of Long Island, Democrats did well in last year’s big elections. They won the Kentucky gubernatorial election, maintained their majority in the Virginia Senate and flipped the Virginia House. The candidate favored by Democrats won a Wisconsin Supreme Court race, which gave the more liberal justices a majority on that court.

A lot of analysts (myself included) have been skeptical about making too much of these results. Turnout in off-year elections is often low. Voters who have been showing up for these off-year races have been more Democratic-leaning than their share of all registered voters in the same states and districts .

Of course, we’re now in a presidential election year, and there are also signs that these off-year results may have been pointing at something important. Yes, the turnout may have been more Democratic than among all registered voters. But the turnout in the presidential election may be as well.

Most national pollsters are gauging responses from registered voters. Not all registered voters will cast a ballot in the presidential election. When pollsters such as Ipsos and The New York Times have honed on either those certain to vote or those likely to vote this year, Biden has done significantly better against his likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump. Ipsos, for example, recently showed a 5-point lead for the former president among registered voters becoming a tie among those certain to vote.

A Suozzi win would further prove the point that Democrats do well when voters are treated to an actual campaign.

On the other hand, a win by Pilip would give us a different narrative. This is the only federal election since the midterms that has been remotely competitive. All the other competitive races were state elections, and voting patterns between US House and presidential elections are far more correlated than they are for state offices and presidential elections.

While it would be easy to dismiss a Pilip win by saying that Long Island has swung to the right since 2020, the rest of the country may have as well. Remember that in the last high-turnout election (the 2022 midterms), Republicans won control of the US House. They did so while winning the House popular vote by 3 points.

That Republican victory represented a 6-point swing from the 2020 House elections. Moreover, that 3-point Republican edge in 2022 looks a lot like Trump’s current advantage over Biden among registered voters nationally. In other words, it’s possible that the national environment hasn’t moved all that much from the last time Republicans secured an important win.

So a victory by Pilip would suggest that perhaps things aren’t all that different from where we were in 2022. This would mean that we have a closely divided electorate, but one with which Republicans are favored.

Either way, you can bet your last dollar that both sides will try to spin the New York special election result. What else would you expect when there’s been more than $10 million spent on ads, which I can report have been playing nonstop on local television.

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