There’s no denying that Republicans who thought they could ride Paul Ryan’s budget to the electoral promised land got a wake-up call in yesterday's NY-26 special election. Democrat Kathy Hochul won in a (hitherto) solidly Republican congressional district by hanging the Medicare reforms in the Ryan budget around Republican Jane Corwin’s neck. Hochul's victory underscored something that polling data had already revealed, viz., that most voters strongly prefer keeping their actual or prospective Medicare benefits to having them cut back in the name of deficit reduction.
It’s not very surprising that this special election confirmed that polling result. When a pollster asks a respondent whether he supports Medicare cuts to reduce the deficit he’s very likely to say no, even though he thinks cutting the deficit should be an urgent governing priority. That implies that the respondent prefers some other approach to cutting the deficit presenting an unspecified trade-off of benefits and burdens. That’s not much different than saying that, all other things being equal, he prefers not cutting to cutting Medicare benefits. Since all other things never are going to be equal, his answer doesn’t tell us much about his preferences respecting alternative sets of budgetary trade-offs.
You can say substantially the same thing about low-turnout, single-issue, special congressional elections. Hochul’s pitch was that Corwin’s admission that she would have voted for the Ryan budget had she already been in Congress showed that, if elected, Corwin wasn’t going to be very attentive to the interests of seniors in upcoming budget battles. Corwin tried, unsuccessfully, both to explain why she was really the more dedicated advocate of seniors’ interests and to make the election about something, anything, else. Hochul didn’t have to say much of anything about how she’d go about attacking the deficit because no one ever imagined that an obscure freshman congresswoman would have the slightest impact on budgetary negotiations in Congress. So her election doesn’t tell us much about whether most voters prefer the set of budgetary tradeoffs contemplated by Democrats over those contemplated by Republicans. How could they when Democratic leaders, from Obama on down, have been so unforthcoming about what trade-offs they’re contemplating?
That’s why special elections don’t tell you very much about what’s going to happen in an election when presidential candidates are at the top of the ticket. Presidential candidates can’t get away without offering relatively coherent agendas that present voters with alternative packages of trade-offs. And congressional candidates running below them on the ticket usually can’t get away without endorsing whatever their party’s presidential candidate is selling. That means that, however it turns out, 2012 won’t be a ceteris paribus election like NY-26.
Voters will be confronted with a choice in 2012 that's more like buying a car than answering a pollster’s questionnaire or voting in a single-issue referendum. All other things being equal, someone entering the car market would prefer the model that gets the best gas mileage, has the most aesthetically pleasing styling, the fanciest appointments and the highest crash-test scores. But, since none of the models on the market come out first on all of those dimensions, that tells you next to nothing about whether, when the time comes to put his money on the table, he’ll buy a Ford or a Honda.
That doesn’t mean that embracing Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms won’t be a serious electoral liability for Republicans in 2012. If NY-26 tells us anything, it tells us that, if Republicans keep standing behind it, voucherizing Medicare will probably be the most unpopular feature of their 2012 model. But we can’t begin to say how serious an electoral vulnerability that will be until the Democrats unveil their own 2012 model, with its peculiar combination of electoral assets and liabilities. It’s remarkable how successful the party that controls both the White House and the Senate has been so far keeping it under wraps.