Although many folks across the country aren’t concerned with who wins in Florida’s 13th Congressional District — a race,according to the most recent poll conducted by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute, that shows Democrat Alex Sink leading Republican David Jolly 46 percent to 37 percent — some politicos are treating this contest as a bellwether for the midterm elections this fall.
Conventional wisdom states that a positive result in the spring augurs well for the party of the victorious candidate. But although this hunger for an electoral appetizer drives media coverage and public attention, most research shows that political prognosticators should tread lightly when drawing conclusions from the results of one special election seven months before the main course. Still, even if we can’t make definitive statements about the future after observing next month’s results, there are several reasons why this election matters.
Bill Young represented the congressional district, comprising the majority of Pinellas County, as a Republican since 1970. All the while, he was able to win re-election more than 20 times without his support slipping below 56.6 percent. However, while Young was busy winning, the political loyalties of his constituents were changing, and despite friendly Republican redistricting efforts in the previous two cycles, this district supported Barack Obama in both of his presidential bids (50.1 to 48.6 in 2012).
This makes the 13th one of only two districts in the Sunshine State to be held by the Republicans that supported the president (District 27 being the other). Nationally, there are only 17 such districts, and Democratic hopes of wresting control of the House from the GOP revolve around winning a majority of those districts. When we’re also reminded that midterm elections are harsh on the president’s party and that Democrats have a relatively large hole to climb out of, these districts are essential pick-up opportunities.
Perhaps more important than the partisan breakdown of the district, this special election is a chance for both parties to test out messaging and advertising strategies for the fall. Although issues like Social Security loom larger in Florida than they do in the country as a whole, Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act figures to be an essential part of the GOP’s approach to hold the House and win back the Senate.
David Jolly appears to have doubled down on this strategy in his early campaign advertisements. While Jolly has called for repeal of the law, Sink has advocated keeping the law in place but is open to implementing popular fixes.
As we comb through the Saint Leo poll results, we see that only 40 percent of voters support a full-scale repeal of the law, while 57 percent prefer the law as is or with minor changes. In the here and now, it means that Jolly must peel off some voters who strike a more conciliatory tone to the problems associated with the Obamacare rollout. On the other hand, Democrats running this fall may take encouragement from the possibility that being associated with the Affordable Care Act is not a death sentence in closely contested elections.
Democrats should feel energized by results showing Alex Sink leading Republican opponent Jolly by a 9-point margin. In a relatively compact district set entirely within one large media market, the Democratic candidate appears to be winning a closely divided district despite repeated attempts by Jolly and outside Republican-allied groups to link her to President Obama’s agenda.
Still, each congressional race is unique. No congressional race will feature the same set of circumstances that bring together a well-known Democrat with recent statewide electoral experience and a former congressman’s staff member. Few races will feature a third-party candidate drawing as well as Lucas Overby. But there are about three weeks left of campaigning before the book is written on this special election and politicos across the country can start reading as much as possible into the results.
Frank Orlando is a political science instructor at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo.