What Should We Read Into FL-13? Maybe Nothing.

What Should We Read Into FL-13? Maybe Nothing.
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Tonight, votes will be tallied in Florida’s 13th Congressional District special election to replace deceased Congressman Bill Young, a Republican. Here are three basic thoughts on the race:

1. My sense is that the Democratic candidate, former state chief financial officer and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, will probably win. 

Back in mid-January, I was corresponding with a left-of-center analyst about a St. Petersburg Times poll, and I commented that “53-47 Sink is about what I’d predict.” That’s about where I am right now, though I think a narrower Sink win is likely, maybe in the three-to-four point range. 

We’ll discuss this more in bullet point No. 3, but this is a district that has gradually trended Democratic over the past few decades, where Democrats have an unusually strong (though still somewhat flawed) candidate, and where Republicans have a candidate who is average at best. In a swing district, that seems to be a recipe for a Democratic win.

There hasn't been much independent polling in this race. The Tampa Bay Times and Saint Leo University released polls in early February showing Sink up 7 and 9 points, respectively. A PPP poll conducted the weekend before Election Day for the League of Conservation Voters showed Sink with a smaller, 48-45, advantage.

On top of this, if there were ever a case where we’d expect a massive polling failure, it would be a special election for a legislative seat. Witness the special election to replace Tim Scott in South Carolina, where polls predicted anywhere between a big Democratic win and a close race, but which ended up in a nine-point GOP blowout.  Legislative seats are just difficult to poll in our gerrymandered universe, especially when the unpredictable turnout from a special election is figured in.

But if there’s one thing that seems to tip the scales in Sink’s direction, it’s that Democrats seem to be outperforming their early voting/absentee metrics from 2012.  That race ended up with an Obama victory in the district, albeit a narrow one. Of course, Election Day turnout may drop off if Democrats are simply cannibalizing their regular voters, but for now, things seem to point in Sink’s direction.

2. There is some symbolic importance to this election.

The 13th District is the lineal descendent of one created in 1952 and won by Republican Bill Cramer.  Cramer was the first Republican from Florida since 1882, when Horatio Bisbee represented a district that spanned the entire eastern half of the Florida Peninsula (it was based in Jacksonville, as Miami wouldn’t be incorporated for another 14 years).  Cramer’s win was the face of the “New Southern Republicanism,” a creation of immigrants from the North who caused sleepy Sun Belt hamlets to explode in population and who transformed the political dynamic in the South.  These sorts of victories were replicated during the ’50s in places like Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., and Arlington, Va., before spreading to the countryside starting in the ’70s and turning swing regions into Republican ones.

Republicans have already lost Tampa and have had to cede most of St. Petersburg proper to that Tampa-based district in order to keep the Pinellas peninsula red.  Losing one of the first Republican redoubts in the South doesn’t mean terribly much in the big picture, but it is a useful reminder that things really do change, sometimes quickly, even in the South.

3. There are very few electoral lessons to be drawn here.

The Hill and USA Today both agree that there is a broader lesson to be learned from this race about the 2014 elections.  I’m much less certain. To begin with, special elections aren’t bellwethers, except when they are. If that doesn’t sound particularly helpful, well, it isn’t meant to.

As we might expect, wave elections are often preceded by surprising wins for the victorious side. In 1974, a number of surprising special election Democratic wins in historically Republican districts were the first signals that things were about to go massively awry for the GOP, and played a role in convincing Richard Nixon to resign. In 1994, Democrats lost historically Democratic districts in Kentucky and Oklahoma.  In 2008, GOP losses in Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana seemingly presaged the rout in the fall.

But sometimes waves aren’t preceded by surprising wins. In 2006, the GOP managed to hang on to a seat with a badly flawed candidate in southern Ohio, and kept a San Diego-based district that many saw as a test of Democrats’ chances in the fall.  In 2010, the GOP lost a special election in southwestern Pennsylvania that had been trumpeted as the only district won by both John Kerry and John McCain.

Of course, there are also special election upsets that herald nothing. Democrats were riding high in 2004 after winning special elections in South Dakota and central Kentucky, but all of that amounted to nothing in the fall.

But even if all that weren’t the case, I’m still not sure what we could read into this particular race.  As mentioned above, this seat is politically marginal, voting near the national margin in two straight elections.  Democrats fielded a reasonably strong candidate in Sink, who had won statewide office, had very nearly won the governorship in a terrible Democratic year (albeit against a damaged opponent), and who carried this district twice in her statewide bids.  This is a profile more commonly found among Senate candidates than House candidates.

Republicans fielded a first-time candidate, David Jolly, who had served as a lobbyist and who faced a competitive primary -- indeed a primary that split Young’s family. While Politico’s “airing of grievances” piece should be taken with a grain of salt -- jilted/nervous consultants turn on campaigns with regularity -- it does serve as a nice compendium for the public mistakes by Team Jolly.

If we must say something, it is this:  If Sink wins, we will know that a strong Democrat without a voting record, who is running in an open swing district, can defeat a middling Republican candidate.  To be honest, that’s actually a somewhat important data point for Democrats, because it wasn’t clear that there was much of anything that they could do to avoid their drop-off problem. Also, some level of support for Obamacare isn’t an automatic kiss of death. But there are very few competitive House races will fit this mold, and none of the competitive Senate races will.

If Jolly wins: Because this is a seat that Sink should win in a neutral year, should she lose despite all her advantages we’ll have another data point that this is not shaping up as a neutral year. But we already intuited this; there are much better data points highlighting the Democrats’ likely midterm blues.

As for my bottom line? I think the Democrat will win this race, but I think there’s a pretty good chance that it will prove as meaningful as their win in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2010.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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