A Post-Mortem on the Florida Special Election

A Post-Mortem on the Florida Special Election
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On Tuesday, I staked out two positions. First, that Republican David Jolly was likely to lose the special election to replace Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young in Florida's 13th Congressional District, though the nature of the election made it particularly susceptible to an upset. Second, that there wouldn't be much to read into the results regardless of who won, although both sides would spin it mightily.

As it turns out I was wrong about the first prediction. The second turns out to have been spot-on in both respects. The Democratic spin has coalesced around the idea that this was a historically Republican district – held by the GOP since 1954 – where the Party of Lincoln barely managed to hold on. That might have been a fair spin in 1984, when Ronald Reagan carried the district by 26 points (before redistricters excised St. Petersburg), but only one Republican presidential candidate has carried this district since the 1980s. Almost everyone had assumed that when Young died or retired it would go Democratic, so it is at least marginally noteworthy that it did not.

Republicans, for their part, have crowed that this shows the effectiveness of the Obamacare attacks, and suggests that Democrats in weaker districts should be terrified right now. The problem, of course, is that we have countless examples of false positives and false negatives from special elections. Democrats won a few difficult special elections in 2004 and didn’t enjoy a victory, much less a wave later than year. Republicans lost a key special election in 2010, and then had their best midterm results in 70 years.

Think of it this way: Imagine that the Democrats had managed to turn out 2,000 more voters, and that 700 voters had changed their minds. We’d be encountering arguments running the exact opposite direction, with Democrats puffed up about how they’d captured a historically Republican district with a candidate who supported mending, not ending, Obamacare. Republicans would argue demographic shifts, and point to the libertarian candidate (although the libertarian tended to run worse in Republican areas).

How different is our position today from the hypothetical I raised above? Not all that much, I’d suggest. Certainly not enough of a difference to base an entirely different campaign narrative upon. This was a close election, and Republicans emerged victorious. They held a seat, and they should feel good about it. But this single observation is just an anecdote. It doesn’t rise to the level of data.

If there are any two things to take away from this, they are as follows. First, Alex Sink ran a little less than four points behind Barack Obama’s showing in the district. This is something we’ve seen time and again since the 2012 election. If this sort of drop-off is replicated in the average congressional or Senate seat in November, it will be a very, very long night for Democrats.

Second, Democrats were hoping for a narrative-shifting data point, which they did not get. Imagine, if you will, a congressional race that has been tied at 44-44 in polling for months. Then, suddenly, we get a poll that shows one candidate up 48-40. Now, that poll might well be an outlier. In fact, it probably is.

It might not be, however. That’s the key: For a candidate to open a lead, he has to get that first poll showing him ahead, and hope it is followed by a second one.

Democrats have been buffeted with a rash of bad news for most of the president’s second term, with the Republican government shutdown the only real respite. The president’s job approval ratings are weak, Democratic Senate candidates are polling badly, and Republicans are faring well in generic ballot polling.

If Sink had won this race, there would at least be an outlying data point that caused us to wonder if more was to come. As it stands, the race is fully consistent with what we’ve seen: Democrats underperforming their 2012 numbers.

With that said, it is crucial to remember that there is still a lot of time for things to turn around for Democrats. Yes, it would be unusual for a president to improve his job approval substantially in his second term, but it wouldn’t be unheard of either. In other words, this election in no way means that Democrats can’t or won’t get their first outlier that, in retrospect, signals an eventual turnaround. It just suggests we aren’t there yet. 

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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