The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democrats’ claim that the GOP ‘underperformed’ on its way to victory

Republican David Jolly smiles Tuesday, March 11, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla., after defeating Democrat Alex Sink (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Chris Zuppa)
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“The GOP underperformed tonight in the #FL13 – a district they’ve held for decades”

–Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, in a tweet March 11, 2014

We understand that politics often requires making lemonade out of lemons, especially when you lose. In the special election this week in Florida’s 13th congressional district, to fill the seat long held by the late C.W. Bill Young, Democrat Alex Sink lost by nearly 2 percentage points to the Republican, David Jolly. Yet the immediate reaction from Democrats was that this result put them in a good position to prevail in the general election later this year.

It was a theme even picked up by the White House press secretary.  “It’s a race that had a lot of peculiarities to it,” Jay Carney said. “Because it’s a special, as any special does, it’s a race where, again, Republicans held the seat for 58 years, where they routinely won that seat by 30 or more points, and last night they won by less than two points.”

So it this over the top spin? Does a close 48.43 percent to 46.55 percent loss actually mean a victory in disguise?

The Facts

In defending Wasserman Schultz’s tweet, DNC spokesman Michael Czin pointed to the margin of victory in the recent congressional elections that featured Young. (The 13th congressional district, before redistricting, was essentially the 10th district.)

2012     15.2%
C. W. Bill Young (REP)  189,605  57.6%
Jessica Ehrlich (DEM)   139,742   42.4%
2010     31.8%
C. W. Bill Young (REP)  137,943  65.9%
Charlie Justice (DEM)    71,313    34.1%
2008     21.4%
C. W. Bill Young (REP)  182,781  60.7%
Bob Hackworth (DEM)   118,430  39.3%
2006     31.8%
C. W. Bill Young (REP) 131,488   65.9%
Samm Simpson (DEM) 67,950     34.1%
2004     38.6%
C.W. Bill Young (REP)   207,175        69.3%
Robert D. ‘Bob’ Derry (DEM) 91,658   30.7%

But how of much a true picture do these results show? For years, Democrats—and analysts–had said that once Young leaves office, it would flip to the other party. That’s because in races when Young was not on the ballot, Democrats consistently were winners.

In the same district, President Obama, for instance, beat both Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. Alex Sink, when she unsuccessfully sought the governorship in 2010, won the congressional district even while losing the state. Sink also won the district when she was elected Florida’s chief financial officer in 2006.

The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index identifies the district as one of the more competitive districts in the nation—Republican plus 1 percent. (The PVI is based on how the district presidential vote compares to the overall national race.) Florida’s 13th congressional district ranked 230 on a list of 435 districts, with 1 being the most Republican and 435 the most Democratic.

In response, officials at the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pointed to polls showing turnout would tilt between 8 and 13 percentage points toward Republicans, even as they also showed a tight race between Jolly and Sink. “The hill is steeper in the a special election than a general election,” said Emily Bittner of the DCCC. “We went from R+13 to losing by two points,” which she said put the Democrats in a good position to win outright in the general election in November.

Charlie Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, noted that Sink was an experienced candidate who previously had run for governor, while Jolly is lobbyist who was a political novice. “The expectation was that it would be close but that she should win,” he said. “The idea that Republicans underperformed in a district that Obama carried twice is laughable.”  He added that it is “extremely rare” for someone to win special election and then lose the general election just a few months later.

The Pinocchio Test

We know everyone has a job to do, but this is taking political spin to a ridiculous level. Yes, Young was a repeat winner, but he was a beloved incumbent. Democrats could write this off as a special election with no real ramifications nationwide, they could blame the failure to win on harsh attacks by outside groups and they could say it was a tough loss. But they cannot credibly say that the other party “underperformed” on its way to victory.

Three Pinocchios

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