Right before the polls close in a special election for a seat in the U.S. House, everyone sagely offers the traditional note of caution: special elections are a peculiar beast, and it is probably best not to try to draw too many firm conclusions from them.
Of course, once the results are known, everyone sagely proceeds to ... draw as many firm conclusions from them as their creative minds are able to fashion.
For whatever reason, the special election earlier this week in Florida's 13th congressional district invited an avalanche of such analysis, much of it devolving into outright spin. Normally, in situations like these, at least some of the spin would look like foreshadowing after November, while some of it, inevitably, is going to be worthy of mockery. This time around, though, it seems to me that there is an unusual amount to mock.
While realizing the abject lack of sexiness in this take, I offer it nonetheless: I don't think we know a hell of a lot more about 2014 now than we did on Monday night. A dispassionate look at the numbers said it was a swing district that could go either way. It went the way of the GOP, narrowly. While it is disappointing for the Democrats, the crowing from the right (and many of the usual suspects in pundit-land) that this is the bat signal that another GOP wave is cresting looks premature at best, and silly at worst.
Follow me past the fold for a look at the numbers, a look at some truly bad spin on the left and the right, and why 2014 is, in a paraphrase of the immortal words of former NFL coach Dennis Green, what we think it is.
Let's begin the analysis by stipulating one thing. A lot of the spin, both official and unofficial, coming from Democrats on Tuesday night was awful. Following the post-game on Twitter was cringeworthy, as several "official" Democrats, as well as other party advocates, kept talking about how Democrats nearly won a "heavily Republican district."
Ugh. But for every ill-advised attempt to paint the Florida 13th as some kind of blood-red conservative stronghold, there was some Republican cheerleader (or pundit/media enabler) who would inevitably refer to it as an "Obama district," which made the win for David Jolly all the more impressive.
Both of those statements are simplistic to the point of silliness.
Though voter registration in the district may lean GOP, it certainly has not performed that way on Election Day. Democrats can carry the district, to be sure. Indeed, Alex Sink carried the district (although narrowly) when she suffered that close loss to Rick Scott in the Florida gubernatorial election of 2010. Bill Nelson has won the region consistently in his races for the Senate for quite some time. And, yes, Barack Obama outpolled both of his GOP challengers in the current confines of the Florida 13th.
Having said that, to call it a "pro-Obama" district is pretty absurd. While he earned more votes out of the 13th than either John McCain or Mitt Romney, he never ran better than his national margins there. And that may be the best place to start understanding how little we should draw from Tuesday's result. Barack Obama won the 2012 presidential election nationally by 3.9 percent. But he won the Florida 13th by 1.5 percent. To put it another way, in a perfectly neutral electoral environment (assuming a uniform swing), the GOP should enjoy an edge of about 2.4 percentage points in the Florida 13th. For the record, this hews fairly closely to 2008, as well, when Obama ran about 2 points on the margin behind his national numbers in FL-13.
David Jolly won on Tuesday night by ... 1.9 percent. This would seem to imply that the media interpretation that this portends an awful environment for Democrats is awfully overblown (instructive examples can be found here and here). The numbers seem to hint that if Democrats were nearly as politically toxic as some in the pundit class are alleging, Jolly would have not only won, but the margin would've been considerably larger than it was. As it was, the numbers imply (as generic polling has done, when you average it out) a fairly neutral environment.
Now, make no mistake: a neutral environment is not good news for Democrats. As we learned in 2012, the combination of residential patterns and creative mapmaking has created a House environment in which the Democrats have to carry the national popular vote for the House, and by a pretty healthy margin, in order to get anywhere near a majority. And, with some near-certain losses on the docket for the Democrats, they need better than a neutral environment, in all probability, to gain any seats at all or even hold steady.
But to imply that a special election, where the outcome was a margin that was almost identical to the status quo, portends an electoral tsunami seems like enormous overkill.
At the end of the day, I'd argue that we know almost exactly as much about the 2014 elections now as we did prior to Sink v. Jolly. If either candidate had won by a healthier margin, you might've been able to argue that there was a serious undercurrent developing.
Many are trying to tie in the Senate races to Tuesday's outcome, as well. In an interesting postmortem by David Weigel, he says the following:
[Sink] came to a slightly blue district and watched it go red. A fall-off like that in other districts and states would be devastating to the 2014 Democrats. Montana, Alaska, Louisiana, South Dakota, West Virginia, North Carolina—all of those states are redder than FL-13, and all have Republicans running to take Democratic Senate seats.Having already addressed the first point, let's focus on the second point. Weigel is absolutely correct: FL-13 was more amenable turf, at least as it relates to Democratic presidential performance in the last two races, than any of the half dozen Senate races he describes.
Well, yeah, sure. But that's been established for quite some time. Even when Democrats looked pretty good after the GOP messed the bed in the shutdown fracas and polls showed outsized Democratic leads, there was still the persistent concern that the Senate map just looked bad for the blue team, because so many seats happened to be on Romney '12 turf. Retirements in South Dakota and West Virginia only served to add to the misery (just as House retirements early in 2014 changed the entire complexion of the battle for that chamber).
Nothing that happened to Alex Sink on Tuesday night changed that, nor did it really seem to intensify that. Again, if Sink had gotten blown out on neutral turf on Tuesday night, that'd be a major cause for alarm. But a defeat by 2 points, in a district whose generic lean, national results being equal, is about R+2 on the margin?
Once again, none of this is good news for the Democrats. None of it. But my point is simply this: all of this not-so-damned-good news was known well before March 11th. We knew the 2014 Senate map was a little fugly for the Democrats, just like Republicans probably know that 2016 is going to be their turn in the penalty box, in terms of Senate geography. We knew Democrats would need a real tailwind to make marked gains in the House, and the clock is ticking down rapidly on that. This is all nothing new under the sun. Which is why the wave of 2014 ZOMG GOP WAVE (!!1!!) stories floating around this week seem to be a tad disproportionate.
What's more, special elections are ... as the cautionary notes of last Monday noted ... peculiar beasts. The DCCC got roundly lampooned for their post-election press release (mostly for the headline: "In Heavily Republican District, Democrats Proved They Can Compete"). But deeper in the piece was an interesting walk down memory lane:
· In the 2006 cycle, Democrats lost every competitive special election, and went on to pick up 31 seats and gain the majority.(Election junkies will rate that as "mostly true," as a look at the special elections of recent vintage reminds us that Charles Djou did steal a Democratic seat in 2010, albeit under very peculiar circumstances.)
· In the 2010 cycle, when House Democrats would lose 63 seats and control of the chamber in the fall, they won every single competitive special election leading up to November.
· As NRCC Chairman Greg Walden said the morning of the race: “Whether we win it or lose it, the special elections aren’t too predictive for either side going forward.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/11/14]
A favorite example of this phenomenon was one not cited by the D-Trip: 2004. Democrats were convinced that the wins for Ben Chandler (KY-06) and Stephanie Herseth (SD-AL), in turf far more hostile than FL-13, were signs of a growing wave of Bush fatigue. It was a pair of special elections that far too many folks predicted would usher in a number of bountiful outcomes: a John Kerry victory in November, and legitimate shots at reclaiming the House and Senate. None of those things, of course, materialized.
At this point, the 2014 picture, in the midst of breathless predictions of Democrats being buried under a wave of Obamacare hate and Koch cash, seems rather simple. Democrats look like they are a betting favorite to (a) lose Senate seats, (b) do no better than hold serve in the House, and (c) pick off some governorships. The main goal, then, is preservation. If they can avoid slipping into the Senate minority, it seems likely that they can recoup their losses in 2016, when the map looks as good for them then as it looks bad for them in 2014. That's what it seems to come down to.
And, essentially, that's what I would have told you last Sunday, as well.