How the Democrats fell short in Florida's special House election

Some of the post-election analysis (and some conventional wisdom) has said that Florida's 13th congressional district, and Pinellas County overall, leans Republican in a presidential year. That's not the case.

Before Republican David Jolly's win Tuesday night, Republicans had held the district for a long time due in part to the late Republican Rep. Bill Young's deep popularity in the district, as a longtime incumbent, despite the fact that it had been trending toward the Democrats in other respects, including when President Obama carried it in 2012.

If one needs more evidence this was a marginal district, consider the fact that when she was running in the 2010 gubernatorial contest, Democrat Alex Sink garnered a higher percentage of the vote in 2010 (53.1 percent) than Mr. Obama later did in 2012 (53.0 percent). Even last night, despite the president's low approval ratings and an area where more than half of the voters are over the age of 60 (a group that usually backs Republicans) Sink nonetheless still managed to win 49.1 percent of the major party vote.

What may have undermined the Democrats Tuesday was the lack of votes cast on Election Day itself as compared to absentee and early voting. There were only 50,245, compared to 133,703 in the county overall in 2010.

Sink's performance on the early vote and absentees positioned her in good shape, with absentee ballots at 50.9 percent and early vote at 60.4 percent, each acceptable targets considering that Mr. Obama carried the district and the county overall with 51.6 percent of the absentee ballots and 65 percent of the early vote. In 2010, when Sink won by 6 percent in Pinellas County, she won 52.9 percent of the early vote and 52.6 percent of the absentee ballots.

Overall, Sink won only 43.6 percent of the major party vote cast on Election Day, compared to 51.9 percent for Mr. Obama in 2012, and 53.3 percent for Sink on Election Day in 2010.

Although turnout was impressive by special election standards - 184,278 (40 percent of registered voters), turnout was 50 percent in Pinellas County in 2010.

Now, we would not always expect special election turnout to equal the level attained in a midterm election, but it has occurred in other special elections. Is it possible that the strong absentee program took in most of the interested Democratic voters? Maybe. But the lower 27.3 percent turnout cast on Election Day, compared to 44 percent for the entire county in 2010, is a difference that suggests many Democrats did stay home. The difference between the 184,000 ballots and the 200,000-plus that could have turned out, if we extrapolate from the good turnout by mail/early, points to that difference as a large factor in Sink's loss.

(Also note: The 13th district represents more than 80 percent of the total Pinellas County vote, and a smaller share of the minority and normally Democratic vote.)

  • Mark Gersh

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