Be prepared to hear about Republican David Jolly's come-from-behind victory in Florida's 13th Congressional District a lot over the next few months (years?). It's being hailed as proof that Obamacare is electoral poison and/or that the Republicans have figured out their ground game. That's probably all a little too easy.
"Special election results are overhyped but not any more so than most political stories (perhaps less so)," polling guru Nate Silver tweeted on Tuesday, well before polls closed. There are a lot of people out there paid to write about and opine on politics (hi!) and when there's only one election happening, it's like having 200 proctologists and one patient. So, the Tampa Bay Times gives us, "David Jolly's victory spells trouble for Democrats nationwide." The Hill calls it a "crucial Florida bellwether special election." And so on.
The argument for nationalizing the results is that Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a race that became a proxy battle over the political value of Obamacare. As The Wire noted on Monday, Sink was slightly favored despite not running hard against the health care program. Outside organizations eager to turn the race into an Obamacare referendum poured millions into the race, on both sides. And then Sink lost, to a candidate who was struggling to keep campaign tensions under control. NBC's Chuck Todd tweeted his analysis: "It's way GOP held FL13 that is so troublesome for Dems. Flawed underfunded cand wins, propped up by outside money aimed at health care". Slate's Dave Weigel, who'd done some of the best national reporting on the race, added, "If you don’t think Ds have a problem when they get 46% in a 51% Obama seat, please whistle quietly. You’re disturbing the graveyard."
Since Obamacare is such a potent political topic, and because this race was one of the first significant electoral tests of how voters would react, it was inevitable that people would turn both the race and the results into that "bellwether" that "spells trouble" for whichever side got beaten. And it will certainly inspire Democratic candidates to be wary of strongly embracing Obamacare moving forward. Politicians are deeply risk-averse. No one will see this as encouragement to stand on stage with President Obama or the woman from Healthcare.gov, despite a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showing that Americans are split about evenly on the Jolly and Sink approaches to Obamacare (i.e., scrap vs. fix).
So why did Jolly actually win? As is the nature of politics, everyone came rushing forward to take credit. By far the goofiest is the anonymous claim reported by The Washington Post's Robert Costa from "several R insiders" that an ad and endorsement from Jeb Bush played a major role. (Do you think that those insiders were people who want Jeb to run in 2016?) The Republican National Committee released a bullet-point list of all the ways it helped — despite earlier reports that the national party and Jolly were at odds.
The RNC co-chair's event probably didn't do much. But that "suite of data driven tools" is interesting, given that the GOP's voter registration and turnout tools were such question marks in 2012. This was a close race, settled by 1.8 percent of the vote — precisely the sort of margin where a better field program can make a difference. On Morning Joe, former Obama advisor David Axelrod credited Republican turnout with the victory, saying that they were motivated to turnout in opposition to Obamacare.
If you've read this far, you clearly care about politics and are interested in the machinations behind how people are elected. It's at this point, then, that we return to Nate Silver's point: It's easy to overanalyze. In my experience: Most voters who vote in oddly-timed special elections are not the sorts of people who will be swayed by last minute TV spots making one argument or another. They're like you, attentive to politics and probably with a predisposition on their allegiances. They are high frequency voters, and usually voters who vote more heavily Republican.
What the percentage difference between Sink and Jolly obscures is the actual vote count. Combined, 173,000 votes were cast for the two candidates on Tuesday. That's only slightly more than Sink received in Pinellas County — the county that heavily overlaps with the 13th District — when she ran for governor in 2010. In 2012, more than 450,000 people voted in the presidential election in the county, with Obama winning by 6 points. That lower overall turnout means two things: The electorate is more likely to be Republican, and small boosts in turnout make a bigger difference. Christine Pelosi (of the Pelosi Pelosis) indicated that turnout was higher in precincts that went to Romney; I'm looking at the data to verify that.
In the meantime, MCI Maps has good analysis of what happened on the ground. Sink won absentee ballots, which have become an important tool in Democratic campaign organizing, as it provides more flexibility for turning out votes. But "on election day ballots, Sink was crushed. Sink got 42% to Jolly’s 54%, a margin of nearly 7,000 ballots." That could mean good turnout efforts, or it could mean that Republicans, as usual, turned out more in a weird election.
In other words: Axelrod might be right and Obamacare might have inspired more people to come to the polls to vote Republican. But, given that the campaign focused on Obamacare for weeks, why didn't that inspire more absentee ballots for Jolly? It's also possible that this race wasn't really about Obamacare at all, but was about what happens in low turnout elections. For Democrats running in November, it won't matter. The narrative is set. And, thanks to turnout patterns, Republicans are expected to do better in November anyway.