What the New York 3rd special election means for November

And why it's not a big deal that the polls were a little off.

February 16, 2024, 2:02 PM

On Tuesday, Democrat Tom Suozzi defeated Republican Mazi Pilip in the special election for New York’s 3rd Congressional District 54 percent to 46 percent. It was a larger-than-expected victory for Democrats, and it will certainly help the party block GOP legislation in the increasingly ungovernable House of Representatives (once Suozzi is sworn in, House Speaker Mike Johnson will be able to afford only two Republican defections in order to pass bills, assuming full Democratic attendance). But other than getting Democrats one seat closer to the magic 218 mark — a majority in the House — the result probably doesn’t add much to our understanding of who will win the 2024 general election.

First, individual special election results can be quite random, subject to idiosyncratic factors such as candidate quality and local issues. Just take a look at how congressional special election results so far this cycle have differed from the base partisanship of the districts in which they were held:

Suozzi overperformed the partisanship of New York’s 3rd District by 4 percentage points, which is good (though not amazing) for Democrats. But just a couple months ago, Republican Celeste Maloy overperformed the partisanship of Utah’s 2nd District by 3 points. A couple weeks before that, Democrat Gabe Amo overperformed the partisanship of Rhode Island’s 1st District by 6 points. Needless to say, the national political environment probably wasn’t changing that much in such a short period of time. Instead, it’s more likely that individual special election results are just noisy.

That doesn’t mean special election results overall aren’t saying good things for Democrats. As we’ve written in the past, overperformance in special elections in the aggregate can be predictive of the next general election, and on average, Democrats in special congressional and state-legislative elections this cycle have overperformed the partisanship of their districts by 6 points. However, the special election in New York’s 3rd didn’t add a lot to our understanding of this, as Democrats were already doing well in special elections this cycle going into this week.

In addition, some observers have tried to discredit polls showing former President Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden by noting that Democrats were underestimated in polls of the New York 3rd special election. That is, as we say around here, a bad use of polling. First of all, polls conducted this long before Election Day don’t have a lot of predictive power anyway. Second, polls of the special election were actually pretty decent. In the three polls conducted within three weeks of the election, Suozzi led by an average of 3 points.

Suozzi, of course, ended up winning by 8 points, which means the polls underestimated the Democratic margin by 5 points. That’s not super accurate, but it’s actually better than the average U.S. House poll. Since 1998, U.S. House polls conducted within three weeks of the election had a weighted-average error of 6 points.

Furthermore, it’s really hard to predict the direction that polling error is going to run (what we call “statistical bias”). The bias in the polls jumps around a lot from election to election, as pollsters constantly fine-tune their methods to try to avoid the previous cycle’s mistakes. For example, after polls overestimated Republicans in 2012, they overestimated Democrats in 2014 and 2016.

In other words, the fact that polls overestimated Republicans in the New York 3rd special election really doesn’t mean anything for how polls will perform in November.

Furthermore, this election had a special circumstance: a nor’easter that dumped 3-9 inches of snow on the district on Tuesday morning. This very plausibly could have played a role in the depressed Republican turnout that the election saw: Since 2020, Republicans have shunned mail and (to a lesser extent) early in-person voting in favor of voting on the day of the election, so if the storm kept some people from voting on Tuesday, they were disproportionately likely to be Republicans. This led to an electorate that was compositionally more Democratic than at least one pollster who surveyed the race had predicted: Siena College/Newsday’s poll of the race assumed that roughly the same number of registered Democrats would vote as registered Republicans, but in fact, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 7 points.

Granted, there is perhaps one specific way in which this election result could bode well for Democrats in 2024: It gives them a blueprint to follow to win other House races on Long Island. For instance, Republican Rep. Anthony D’Esposito represents a neighboring congressional district, the 4th, that is even bluer (at least for now — its exact lines may be redrawn before the 2024 election) than the 3rd District is. And with Democrats now needing to flip only four congressional seats to take back control of the House, that’s no small thing. Overall, though, Tuesday’s result doesn’t say much about whether Democrats have a groundswell of support nationally that the polls are missing.