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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Beyond the Spin on FL-13

There’s been a lot of questionable spin over the results in Tuesday’s special congressional election in the 13th District of Florida, which Republican David Jolly won over Democrat Alex Sink by just under 3500 votes. GOPers naturally want to make it out as a “referendum on Obamacare,” and some Democrats seem to agree that an “enthusiasm gap” partially attributable to Obamacare was the key.
But that’s not what I concluded at Washington Monthly:

One thing that the FL-13 special election results should encourage everyone to do is to get very serious about the phenomenon I write about metronomically here: the “midterm falloff problem” for Democrats.
We don’t have exit polls for FL-13, so we can’t figure out exactly who turned out and who didn’t. But the total vote falloff from 2012 was 46%. It was even 21% from 2010, which reminds us that special elections are kind of super-midterms when it comes to participation levels. Given the eternal proclivity of younger and minority voters who now heavily lean D to vote more in presidential than in non-presidential contests, it’s pretty hard to believe that wasn’t the most important reason why Alex Sink ran behind Barack Obama’s 2012 percentages in the district….
In the last good midterm election for Democrats, 2006, the Donkey Party broke even among voters over 65, who represented 19% of the electorate. Democrats narrowly lost white voters (47-51), who represented 79% of the electorate. Two years later, Obama’s overall solid win masked the fact that Democrats lost over-65 voters by eight points, while their deficit among white voters increased from 4 to 12 points. These demographic categories quite naturally declined as a percentage of the electorate (seniors from 19% to 16%; whites from 79% to 74%).
So the cataclysm of 2010 was largely a matter of Democrats continuing to lose vote share among seniors (a deficit of 21 points) and white voters generally (a 23 point deficit), who again made up a higher proportion of the electorate (seniors: 21%, whites: 77%). In 2012, the Democratic vote share rebounded somewhat among seniors and white voters (12 points and 20 points, respectively), but the more important factor is that their share of the vote declined significantly (old folks and white folks each down 5 points).
I could go on for quite some time with such numbers, but the point is that the two electorates, midterm and presidential, pretty clearly have two “natural” majorities based on vote share and participation rates. And changing that won’t be easy, for either party.

Senate Democrats are reportedly making a reduction in “midterm falloff” their major collective task going into the general election. That’s a very good thing, and as the narrow margin of GOP victory in FL-13 indicates, not at all a hopeless task.

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