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How Democrats Interpreted NY-26

- June 16, 2011

After Kathy Hochul won the NY-26 special election, I wrote:

bq. MUCH more interesting is not “what it means” but “what POLITICIANS think it means.”  Even though their perceptions may extrapolate well beyond the available data, it still matters whether they think that NY26 was an outlier, a harbinger of a voter backlash against GOP policies, a sign that Democrats can gain ground in 2012 by accusing the GOP of endangering Medicare, or what have you.

Lindsey Cormack, a Ph.D. student at NYU, sends the following analysis.  She compared the reactions of members of Congress after Scott Brown’s election and after Hochul’s election.

bq. After each special election there are judgments from pundits and politicians as to what that election means for the broader political environment. We may never know what any given special election truly means, but we can study what politicians think it means by using the texts they send to their constituents regarding a given election. The texts analyzed here are all Congressional e-newsletters or RSS feeds sent by members of Congress within a week of a given special election. The communications were edited to only use passages referring the special election. For example, if a congressperson wrote both about the special election and an upcoming job fair in their district, only the section regarding the special election was retained. Any instance of the term ‘health care’ or ‘health-care’ was converted to one word ‘healthcare’ for consistency in rendering the word clouds. In addition, stop words and email client words (Sender, Recipient, Date, etc.) are not used in the analysis.

bq. Initially, there are important differences between the senders of these messages. The Scott Brown election drew 30 messages from 28 unique senders within a week. Of these senders 7 were Senators and the party break down was 1 Democrat to 27 Republicans. Kathy Hochul’s election received far less attention with only 3 messages from 2 unique senders. No Senators commented on this House election and of the House members who commented, 1 was a Democrat 1 was a Republican.

bq. A rough way to understand how members of Congress communicated the significance of the Brown and Hochul special elections is to look at word and word pair frequencies. The word frequency clouds below show what terms were most prevalent in messages regarding the winning candidates of special elections. The interpretation of the pictures is straightforward where the relative size of a each word represents the relative frequency of that word. In addition, in order to get a feel for how these messages are framed I present the top 15 collocations (word pairs) that occur within the texts.




As is apparent from the figures (and confirmed by a manual reading), the overarching message sent regarding the Brown election is that it shows that the American people reject a government take over of health care. The Hochul messaging strategy is centered around Medicare and how the election signifies that people disagree the Republican plan to change the program.

So did the majority of the US election really dislike government intervention into health care in January of 2010 and then change their minds in May of 2011? Probably not, but members of Congress who choose to speak about these special elections seem to say so.