Opinion | On Tom Suozzi and the Long Island Special Election

Last week, Tom Suozzi won handily in the special election in New York’s Third Congressional District to fill the seat vacated by serial fraudster George Santos — reclaiming the seat that Suozzi previously held. This was the latest in a series of Democratic victories in special elections, victories that seem on their face to run counter to polls showing Donald Trump leading Joe Biden in the presidential race.

As Nate Cohn, the Times’s lead polling analyst, has been at pains to point out, there isn’t necessarily a contradiction here. Those who vote in special elections aren’t representative of those who will vote in November, and they may be especially motivated by hot-button issues, especially abortion, that have favored Democrats lately. Furthermore, Long Island, on which NY-03 lies, is an unusual place — something I, who mostly grew up there, can personally confirm.

Yet while I make no pretense of expertise in poll analysis, I, like some others, suspect that this election may be more significant than pure number-crunching suggests — it may be an early indication that Republicans’ strategy of victory through sabotage won’t work.

The starting point here is that our political system may be unique among democracies in its vulnerability to sabotage by a ruthless opposition party. For voters often judge presidents based on factors over which they have little control.

In some cases, this lack of control reflects the limits of American power in general. For example, the price of gasoline is highly salient politically, yet it mainly reflects crude oil prices, which are set in world markets over which U.S. policy has limited influence.

Beyond this, when voters think about our government, they usually think about the executive branch, sometimes skipping over the fact that there are many things a president can’t do without approval from Congress. Further, we have a bicameral system in which a president can be hamstrung even if the other party controls only one congressional chamber, a problem compounded by the peculiar institution of the Senate filibuster, which often allows a party to block action even if it’s in the minority.

But voters often don’t focus on that. When things are going well, they give the president credit; when they feel that they’re going badly, they blame him.

For the record, this disconnect between public perceptions and the reality of presidential power has at times favored both parties. Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984 thanks largely to a boom engineered by an independent Federal Reserve rather than anything he did; Bill Clinton won in 1992 thanks to a weak labor market (“It’s the economy, stupid”) that really wasn’t George H.W. Bush’s fault.

Still, while stubbornly high unemployment helped Democrats in 1992, they didn’t deliberately use their control of the House and Senate to make things worse.

But that was a different country.

With the economy improving and persuadable voters beginning to recognize that improvement, the focus of the 2024 campaign — to the extent that it’s focused on policy at all — has shifted to immigration, with Republicans demanding harsh restrictions and greatly strengthened border security. And here’s the thing: Democrats have gone along, negotiating a bipartisan bill that would have given the G.O.P. most of what it said it wanted.

But Republicans, following instructions from Trump, then killed their own bill. They didn’t even really try to hide the cynicism: They’d rather have the American public see a border in crisis than help fix the problem, because they believe this will benefit them politically.

Will this cynicism pay off? Initial polling suggests, depressingly, that it might. As The New Republic’s Greg Sargent has noted, a recent ABC News-Ipsos survey found more Americans blaming Biden for the failure to pass immigration legislation than blaming Trump, even though Biden supported the deal and Trump deliberately (and very publicly) sank it.

But this polling reflects an electorate that for the most part hasn’t been following the legislative maneuvering. In general, as I’ve already suggested, most voters, most of the time, pay far less attention to politics than those of us in the chattering classes.

The key question is whether the G.O.P.’s cynical sabotage on immigration will continue to work as voters’ minds are focused by the prospect of an election in the near future, with Democrats hammering home the point that they are supporting border security measures while Republicans are blocking them.

Which brings us back to NY-03. The Republican candidate, Mazi Pilip, ran as a hawk on immigration. Suozzi ran in part on abortion rights, but also aimed to neutralize the border issue by staking out a tough position — basically the same position now held by Biden — while attacking Republicans for their obstructionism.

And while some reporting predicted a nail-biter, Suozzi won a comfortable victory, exceeding his margin in pre-election polls.

Again, you should never read too much into one special election, just as you shouldn’t read too much into one month’s economic data. But Suozzi may have provided a template for how to overcome Republican sabotage.

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