A president under investigation. Talk of impeachment. The opposition party poised to strike in a special election. Could this be the shape of things to come?
Well, maybe. But when all these ingredients were present in 1998, none of the five special elections held that year gave any indication as to President Clinton’s future fate. That year, in the five districts where congressional vacancies required voters to go to the polls early, the seats remained in the hands of the parties of the previous incumbents.
At the same time, that didn’t stop pundits from breathlessly predicting a Republican landslide 20 years ago this November.
To be fair, all the ingredients for a big GOP victory were there. Not only was the president mired in scandal, but he was also in his second term, and, historically, midterm elections for a soon-to-be lame duck president always favored the opposition party due to the “six-year itch.” But the Republicans overplayed their hand, and Clinton’s approval ratings wet up as the scandal quagmire deepened. So in the 1998 midterms, the opposition party actually gained seats in the House for the first time since 1934.
Resetting the Expectations Game
This reality should have tempered expectations for the special election in Georgia that the talking heads all saw as a bellwether for the future of the Trump agenda. Democrat Jon Ossof was billed as a “Trump slayer” for his solid performance in what has historically been a GOP stronghold. Out-of-state money poured in to this race because of its potential to embarrass the president, making it the most expensive House election in the nation’s history. And, in the end, the Republicans had little trouble keeping the seat safely in GOP hands.
With his defeat, 52 percent to 48 percent, by Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, The moral of the story ought to be obvious.
If it isn’t, then you should consider the reality that an election in June in 2017 is unlikely to have any predictive power for elections almost a year-and-a-half away. Seventeen months is an eternity in politics, and nobody can anticipate what the political landscape will be in November of 2018. These Russian investigations might produce real fire and not just smoke, and President Trump might well be on the ropes or even out of office.
Just as likely, these investigations may lead absolutely nowhere and a sympathetic electorate might reward the party of Trump with extra seats in Congress to make up for the indignities he will have suffered at the hands of overeager prosecutors. Or, probably more likely, reality will be somewhere in between, and not much will change.
Regardless, reading political tea leaves is generally a waste of time. Of course, that won’t stop armchair pundits from doing so, although it would be wise to consider their track records before putting much stock in their predictions. For instance, how many of them, seventeen months ago, foresaw the rise of Donald Trump and his improbably victory over Hillary Clinton? That isn’t a rhetorical question – you can check the record. If they were wrong, that won’t stop them from making new guesses that will be equally wrong. But it should stop observers from hyperventilating over the conventional wisdom about any pundit’s power to see into the future.
(Photo of Georgia Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff delivers a concession speech in his race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in June 2017, by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)