On Wednesday, former Alaska state Rep. Mary Peltola was declared the winner of the state’s special election for its sole U.S. House seat. She is the first Democrat to win statewide since 2008.

It’s also the latest special election in which Democrats have outperformed expectations. And despite claims from some Republicans that Peltola only won because Alaska is now using ranked choice voting, she still got the most first place votes, indicating the outcome wouldn’t have changed even with traditional voting.

Does Peltola’s defeat of former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin augur good things for Democrats in November?

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U.S. House candidate Democrat Mary Peltola answers questions from a reporter prior to a forum for U.S. House candidates at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association annual conference at the Dena’ina Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Peltola won the special election for Alaska’s only U.S. House seat on Wednesday, besting a field that included Republican Sarah Palin, who was seeking a political comeback in the state where she was once governor. | Marc Lester, Anchorage Daily News via Associated Press

Outperforming expectations

Midterm elections are often seen as a referendum on the party in power. With President Joe Biden’s approval numbers sagging earlier in the summer, it looked like Republicans were going to win big in November.

Through June 14, 2022, Republicans had outperformed their expected vote margins by an average of two points across nine special elections — often used as a bellwether for the general election environment — according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric. Republicans even won in Texas’ 34th District, which was expected to lean toward the Democrats by five points.

Things changed in June, though, likely because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

Since the Dobbs decision, Democrats have outpaced expectations in all five special elections by an average of 11 points. Abortion rights proponents also defeated a major referendum in deep-red Kansas that would have removed the state’s constitutional protection of the procedure.

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What the data says

New polling supports the idea that Democrats are gaining ground, including a new Wall Street Journal poll. When asked which party voters would be more likely to vote for if the Congressional elections were held today, 47% said Democrats and 44% said Republicans. That’s an eight-point swing in favor of Democrats compared to the same poll in March, when the GOP held a five-point lead.

FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot polling average gives Democrats a slight edge, 44.6%-43.6%.

Neither the special elections results nor the generic ballot/congressional polling is predictive of what will actually happen in the midterms, but they suggest the verdict is still out on the Democrats’ odds this fall.

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