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Morning Plum: No, today’s special election is not a ‘bellwether’

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Today voters will go to the polls in Florida’s 13th district, and media organizations are already putting the world on notice: the outcome will be hyped mercilessly as a “bellwether” for the 2014 elections this fall, with an emphasis on what it tells us about which side’s Obamacare “messaging” will triumph.

In a series of tweets this morning, Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson disputed this meme. He made three points:

1) The outcome will come down to whichever side’s turnout operation does a better job — turnout in special elections is notoriously quirky — because the media environment is absolutely saturated. Outside spending has topped $11 million.

2) The libertarian candidate makes the outcome even more unpredictable. The latest poll found him getting as much as six percent. Depending on who he pulls votes from, that alone could decide the outcome.

3) Dem Alex Sink didn’t even vote for Obamacare, so this election isn’t really a referendum on the health law. If she wins, that doesn’t tell us anything about whether red state Dem Senators who did vote for it will remain vulnerable as a result. The GOP strategy explicitly is about attacking these Dems for voting with a president who said you could keep your plan.

I’d add this goes the other way: Even if the Republican wins, it won’t tell us that much about the degree to which Obamacare will be a liability for Dems. The 2014 elections are in eight months — nearly a year after the rocky rollout — and even Obamacare foes admit that what matters is how the law fares over time. This special election is about other things, too: Even Republican David Jolly said outside GOP-aligned groups’ Obamacare-obsessed ads are drowning out other issues.

What’s more, control of the Senate will be decided largely in seven states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. Republicans are going to do very well no matter what. Meanwhile, Dems don’t have to “win” to hold the Senate. They just have to not lose by too much. The outcome will be largely decided by one of the following: What the economy looks like later this year. Whether a couple of vulnerable Dems can hang on in those seven states (say, in North Carolina and Louisiana) thanks to a particularly good candidate performance combined with a particularly bad outing by the GOPer. Whether Dems catch one or more breaks (if, say, the GOP nominates a Tea Party nutter in Georgia or another GOP candidate pulls a Todd Akin somewhere), making a surprise pickup possible and making the road to GOP control much steeper. For today’s election to have any real predictive significance, all of the above would have to be negligible factors.

Most observers agree today’s election will be extremely close. If you are going to say the outcome will tell us either that Dems are doomed because of Obamacare or that Dems have found the correct formula to rebuff GOP attacks on it, then you must of necessity agree that if a few thousand people, or even a few hundred, had voted the other way in this quirky special election eight months before election day, it would have supported precisely the opposite grand conclusion.


* WHOEVER WINS, THE RESULTS WILL BE HYPED MERCILESSLY: Nathan Gonzalez of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report warns against over-interpreting the outcome:

There is one certainty in the race: the winning party will overplay the results, the losing party underplay it, and the lessons from the election will likely be somewhere in the middle. Special elections can be bellwethers — except when they’re not. In 2008, Democrats won a trio of competitive special elections before gaining 21 more seats that November and adding to the party’s House majority. In May 2010, Democrats won a supposedly bellwether special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District six months before losing 63 seats in the House.

The thing about this is that every political observer knows it. But much of this history will go out the window in the scramble to read deep meaning into the results that just isn’t there.

* THE LATEST NUMBERS OUT OF FLORIDA’S SPECIAL ELECTION: The latest numbers out of Florida’s 13th district show that Republicans lead in the total absentee ballots and early votes cast by five points, 43-38. Historically Republicans have had a larger lead than that going into Election Day and still lost — as independents and swing voters decide elections there — so it remains to be seen whether this edge will be enough for Republican David Jolly to win over Dem Alex Sink, or whether Sink will overcome it.

This does suggest Republicans regained some momentum they’d lost on Sunday, but the race still remains a toss-up given indications Sink may be winning among independents.

* DEMS HIT GOP CANDIDATES FOR LACK OF O’CARE ALTERNATIVE: Dems are pointing to a new analysis by the American Enterprise Institute that concludes the leading GOP reform alternative — the Burr-Hatch plan — “falls short” because it fails to “reverse” the overregulation that is supposedly the problem with our health system. DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky emails:

The GOP health care plan to allow insurance companies to go back to abusing patients is so wrong that even their own Republican think tank is slamming their ideas. The only genuine health care plan from Republican candidates is to discriminate against preexisting conditions, force women to pay more for health care, and charge seniors thousands more for prescription drugs.

As we’ve seen in the case of North Carolina GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, Republicans who know repeal alone is politically untenable are unable to embrace any alternative without getting hit from the right. That leaves them tied to the position that we should go back to the old system.

* ARE POLLS OF FL-13 ALL WRONG? The Huff-Pollster team raises a really interesting point: All the polls that have found the race to be tied failed to survey cell-phone-only individuals. Meanwhile:

The two polls that did attempt to reach cell-only households — by the Tampa Bay Times and St. Leo University — showed Sink leading by margins of 9 and 7 percentage points respectively in early February.

Of course, those were both a month ago, so even if they were the more accurate ones, they might not tell us anything about what will happen today.

* FL-13 IS A BELLWETHER IN ONE SENSE, AT LEAST: Scott Bland makes a smart point: The real significance of today’s election is that strategists in multiple states and contexts across the country are bracing for similar levels of spending. Oy.

* AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY AD DEBUNKED AGAIN: New evidence has emerged that Julie Boonstra, the cancer victim in AFP’s notorious ad, will actually reap more than $1200 in savings from her new health care plan. Glenn Kessler sums it up:

One cannot claim that a plan is “unaffordable” when over the course of the year it will provide you with substantial savings.

Sure you can, when millions and millions of dollars behind the ads ensure that they will drown out anything that pointy-headed fact checkers say.

* PUBLIC SPLIT ON OBAMA’S HANDLING OF UKRAINE: Peyton Craighill brings us the latest on a new Post poll:

A solid 56 percent supports a coordinated effort of U.S. and European sanctions against Russia, which continues to strengthen its grip over the Crimean peninsula. Nearly as many strongly support sanctions (28 percent) as oppose them altogether (31 percent). But Obama, who ordered sanctions Thursday against individuals aiding the takeover, receives lukewarm 42 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval marks, with a substantial 15 percent holding no opinion.


U.S. Congressman Brad Schneider (IL-10) will file a discharge petition on Wednesday that would break through the gridlock and force a vote on extending unemployment insurance, which has lapsed for 2 million Americans. The House would be required to consider the legislation if a majority of Members sign the petition.

No Republicans will sign it, of course, but discharge petitions still have some utility: they can give reporters a hook to ask lawmakers why, leading to more stories about the issue. We’re getting discharge petitions on unemployment benefits, immigration, and the minimum wage.

What else?