he secret to success in politics, like that of real estate (location, location, location), supposedly consists of three simple words:
Turnout, turnout, turnout.
That would appear to be the short explanation for why the Democrats narrowly lost last week’s special election in Pinellas County’s 13th Congressional District.
Republican David Jolly edged Democrat Alex Sink by 3,488 votes.
Was it the familiar Democratic phenomenon once again? Feeble interest without a presidential race on the ballot?
As with many first impressions, that appearance is somewhat misleading.
The unofficial totals indicate that the Democrats actually turned out a slightly higher percentage of their registered voters than the Republicans did.
Both were over 50 percent, which is considered decent for a special election.
There were simply more Republicans to start with, thanks to gerrymandering. Even at that, there were very nearly not enough.
As the Democratic turnout was some 18,000 votes fewer than Sink’s total, it means the Democrats won among voters who belong to neither of the big parties.
But there weren’t enough of those to overcome the Republican registration advantage. By my math, only 26 percent of those “other” voters even went to the polls. That’s the turnout the Democrats failed to get.
In so close an election, any reason is as good as another. If I were a candidate, I’d rather lose by a lot than by so little. That way, there’s less sleep to be lost worrying about what might have made a difference.
The Republican assault on Obamacare made no obvious headway among Democrats, but it probably did keep some independent voters home. Whether it accounted for 3,500 or more no-shows is doubtful.
Whether it can do that again in November–with a high-profile governor’s race on the ballot–is even more doubtful.
But for the Republicans to boast that it’s a repudiation of Obamacare is to disguise the gerrymandering that set up their victory.
The wonder isn’t that the Democrat lost, but that she lost by so little.
Remember, she carried that district in two statewide elections. So did Barack Obama. In each case, there were multiple races and issues to spur the turnout.
It’s a district that was created in 2002 under another number, but in nearly the same form, to be forever safe for Congressman C. W. Bill Young, whose death opened it to real competition.
Pinellas County is nearly large enough to have a congressional district entirely of its own. Yet it’s split three ways, with number 13 occupying the center part.
There are nearly 54,000 black non-Hispanic voters in the county, but only 21,000 live in District 13. Most of the rest are in Rep. Kathy Castor’s District 14, centered on Tampa.
That was no coincidence. To split the black vote is to split the Democratic vote.
The pattern was set in 1992, when Jim Hargett, an African American state representative from Tampa, wanted to move up to the state Senate.
The Republicans were delighted to oblige.
They schemed with Hargrett to include much of south St. Petersburg, and its many black voters, in a multi-county monstrosity that came to be called the “bug splat” district. They gulled the Florida Supreme Court into approving it.
The split left State Sen. Jeanne Malchon, a St. Petersburg Democrat, with no way to run for re-election but to move or to oppose Hargett in a district dominated by Hillsborough County voters. She retired instead.
As for Democratic Sen. Helen Davis of Tampa, her district was now dominated by white Republicans living in Pinellas.
That’s how Charlie Crist won his first election.
A decade later, Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, chairing his chamber’s redistricting committee, used the Hargrett bug splat model–which, he emphasized, had been upheld in court–to put south St. Petersburg in a congressional district with Tampa.
That took a wealth of Democrats out of Young’s district. It conceded the Democrats would more than carry the new district, held first by Jim Davis and then by Castor. Actually, it guaranteed it. There are now nearly twice as many Democrats than Republicans in Castor’s district. Nearly 40,000 of them live in Pinellas.
That’s called “packing.” Young’s district, meanwhile, was “bleached.”
Whatever you call it, it’s wrong.
The redistricting language that is now in Florida’s Constitution, thanks to a voter initiative, would likely have prevented it. But it wasn’t there in time.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Waynesville, NC.