David Jolly won an upset victory over Democrat Alex Sink in Tuesday’s special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district, sending another Republican to the House of Representatives, and unleashing a torrent of breathless predictions that Democrats are doomed in 2014.
A National Journal article by Josh Kraushaar, titled “Why a Republican Wave in 2014 is Looking More Likely Now,” and Joe Scarborough’s declaration that “we may have something historic here happening, where you have one act [Obamacare] actually causing grave damage to a political party two midterms in a row” typify this brand of speculative political analysis.
That makes for an easy narrative, but it’s grounded in very few facts. It’s entirely possible — or even probable — that Republicans make major gains in the 2014 midterms. They may even win a Senate majority. But if they do, it will have nothing to do with what happened in Pinellas County on Tuesday night.
For starters, as political scientist Alan Abramowitz pointed out after a 2011 special election in New York — in which Republican Bob Turner upset Democrat David Weprin, prompting excited (and false) reports of an impending Republican wave in 2012 — the results of special elections do not accurately predict the results of subsequent general elections.
“An analysis of the results of all special House elections since World War II shows that while there is a weak relationship between the net party swing in special elections and the net party swing in the subsequent general election (the correlation is .32), special election results have no impact once you control for other factors such as the party of the president in midterm elections, seats held by the parties going into the election and the incumbent president’s approval rating,” Abramowitz wrote.
A quick look at the specifics of Florida’s special election makes it clear that this contest is no exception.
First, turnout was very low. Just 183,634 voters cast ballots in the election, down from 329,347 in the 2012 general election, and 266,934 in the 2010 midterm. To be clear, Republicans — who have a narrow registration advantage in the district — did a much better job getting their voters out to the polls than Democrats did. But Florida Democrats’ failure to convince voters to turn out for Alex Sink in March tells us exceedingly little about, say, Alaska Democrats’ ability to get out the vote for Mark Begich in November.
Second, there’s no evidence that Obamacare — which has been widely labeled as the hinge on which the election swung — actually served as a decisive factor in the election. There is no exit polling available for the race, but polls leading up to election day suggested that voters had other priorities; a Februrary Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/WUSF Public Media poll, for example, found that while 39 percent said the Affordable Care Act was “very important” to their voting preference, 33 percent said it was just “somewhat important,” and 26 percent said it is “not at all important” (in fairness, that poll also said that Sink would win).
And while the Affordable Care Act featured prominently in the barrage of television ads that saturated the airwaves throughout the campaign, it was hardly the sole focus of the race. In fact, Jolly didn’t even mention the law in his victory speech, choosing instead to focus on his commitment to local issues.
But even if it turns out that Obamacare did seal the victory for Jolly, there’s no reason to assume that the issue will spark a Republican wave. As Abramowitz reminds us, the way that 180,000 Floridians feel about the law in March tells us very little about how some two million voters in North Carolina or Georgia will feel about it eight months from now. And national polls suggest that the law is not set up to be a clear electoral winner for either party.
Finally, in Florida’s election, one must consider Libertartian candidate Lucas Overby, who won about 5 percent of the vote. As Nick Gillespie points out in Reason, Overby’s platform makes it very plausible that he pulled more votes away from Sink than he did from Jolly (in the same manner that Libertarian Robert Sarvis pulled more votes from Democrat Terry McAuliffe than he did from Republican Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election). Again, with no exit polls, it’s impossible to know for sure. But there’s a chance that were Overby not in the race, Sink would have won. If that were the case, would the media be running with overheated reports that Democrats will be in the catbird seat come November?
There’s no question that Sink’s loss should be a major disappointment for Democrats, who squandered a real shot at winning a seat that Republicans have held for decades. And there’s also no question that Democrats, saddled by an unfriendly electoral map and an unpopular president, are in danger of suffering big losses in the midterms. But there is simply no reason to believe that last night’s result provides a roadmap for future elections across the nation. If Republicans do make big gains in November, it will have nothing to do with David Jolly or Alex Sink.
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