I hate reading lists that begin with long winded explanations of what’s to come. So with that in mind, let’s get down to brass tacks and examine three of the biggest myths surrounding the special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District.
Big Data is King
To be sure, knowing who your voters are, their beliefs and motivations, their habits, and a myriad of other data points is essential to a modern campaign. The recent launch of the RNC startup, Para Bellum Labs, is a welcome development so long as it remains focused on data and not policy or personalities. But to hail the arrival of GOP “Big Data” as an electoral savior or “game changer” misses the actual utility of data.
Let me explain.
In 2012, Barack Obama operated the single biggest data mining and exploitation regime this nation, politically, ever witnessed. Utilizing this massive data mining effort and deep statistical analysis, he then went on to win Florida…by less than 1% (.9%) and won the 13th Congressional District by 1%.
Meanwhile, in 2012, Democrat Senator Bill Nelson, presumably without access to the vaunted Obama “big data” machine, won Florida with 286,000 more votes than Barack Obama (granted, against a weaker candidate) and won the 13th Congressional District by 18%.
Ironically enough in 2010, a GOP “wave” year, Alex Sink also won the 13th Congressional District, by 3%.
Enter Bill Young, in 2012, without access to such data – beyond polling, WebElect, etc. In the District carried by President Obama by 1%, Bill Nelson by 18%, and Alex Sink by 3%, Young won re-election by 16%.
The lesson here? Big data won’t replace likeable candidates, fundraising, and retail politics. It won’t save bad candidates (ie Alex Sink) or carry decent ones across the finish line. What it will do is provide good candidates with demographics and targets to expand their margins and/or enlarge the overall vote pie (ie David Jolly).
Big data is a Duke or an Earl. Compelling, charismatic, and disciplined candidates will always be King.
Primaries are to be Avoided at all Costs
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone at the party level (local, state, national) say, “we want to avoid a primary here…” The question I have always had is, “why?”
Take the Republican primary in FL13 as a great example. David Jolly faced opponents on the left and the right. Kathleen Peters had deep roots in Pinellas County (arguably deeper than David recently) and Mark Bircher had decades of service in the Marine Corps and solid conservative credentials.
Did honing his stump speech, getting the kinks out, walking doors, meeting people, and participating in debates hurt Jolly? On the contrary, it helped separate the wheat from the chaff.
Another aspect of this myth I hope is put to bed is the notion that primaries force candidates too far to the right or the left. What hurts candidates in primaries is not competition or winning the base. What hurts candidates is a lack of discipline and a naivete )especially in the GOP) toward knowing when they are being setup by the media. Jolly went right because it is what he believes. Sink tried to embrace the ether – the middle – and lost. As did Mitt Romney. As did John McCain. As did Al Gore. The list goes on.
Did the primary hurt anyone? Yes, it hurt Kathleen Peters. But not because it was a bruising primary. Instead, it exposed Peters’ lack of depth on the issues and her petulance as a candidate. This was only made more evident after the election when she refused, for a time, to endorse David Jolly and later issued what can only be described as an endorsement so cold you could chill beer on the paper it was written on. This earned Peters, not only taunts and questions from many in Pinellas and Tallahassee, but it also drew her a top notch primary opponent for her State House seat in businessman, LJ Govoni.
Big Turnout Favors Democrats
This one is pervasive. In a discussion with a Florida reporter (who shall remain nameless because he is level headed and intellectually curious in a profession that is quickly discouraging those traits), we discussed the notion from camp Sink that she needed high turnout to win. Polling, both public and private, showed this to be utterly false, yet the meme persisted throughout the campaign. We didn’t understand it.
Again, allow me to explain.
It was clear that Sink was taking more Republicans from Jolly than Jolly took Democrats from Sink. It was also clear that Sink would win or at worst, split independents. There came a point during absentee voting where the uptick in Democrat returns, coupled with the previously stated partisan reality, actually put Sink in the lead by more than 3,000 votes. (Early and Absentee results bore this out and was the case despite a late GOP “surge”)
Fast forward to election day. In 2012 the GOP won election day by 7% in FL13. So it was safe to assume – as occurred in 2008, 2010, and 2012 – if past is prologue, the GOP would win election day in a special. But if Sink was up 3,000 votes, and 30,000 voters came out on election day, Jolly would not have enough raw Republican votes if Sink kept stealing Republicans, to make up the difference.
So what happened? Almost 53,000 voters voted on election day. Nearly twice what some predicted. Jolly won that vote by 6,445. Cut the number of voters in half and Jolly skims by or perhaps, Sink does. But the fact remains, greater turnout saved the Republican.
The question is, why? One word – intensity.
We saw this phenomenon in 2004. After the razor thin Bush victory in 2000 (and yes, after recounts Bush still would have won), pundits predicted that high turnout would spell doom for the GOP. In reality, President Bush took over 11.5 million more votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. The War on Terror, his leadership in a crisis, charisma, and a booming economy gave his voters a reason to vote. Their energy was palpable.
Fast forward to 2012. Hillsborough County Florida.
President Obama is energized, his supporters are in a fighting mood. The GOP has nominated an immensely qualified candidate who excites almost no one. Turnout nationwide falls below 2004, yet President Obama increases his total vote in Hillsborough by 67,000 voters. (He narrowly beat McCain as well in 2008) Romney, in the meantime, increased the 2008 GOP vote total by only 40,000 (249,000).
But the most startling demonstration that turnout is a matter of energy?
In 2004, George W. Bush received 245,000 votes in Hillsborough County. In 2012, Mitt Romney barely matched him (249,000), despite the County growing by almost 200,000 residents during the time between elections.
The lesson for parties in this is – candidates matter. Issues matter. Policy matters. In other words, good policies, actually doing what you said you would do, and consistency equals leadership. People follow leaders. Its as old as Moses.
There are many more myths being tossed about in the immediate post mortem of this election. From the idea that outside groups and party committees won the race to FL13 being a “Republican seat,” myths will persist so long as there are elections in this country.
From the perspective of someone who works to get Republicans elected, there is a sense of relief and joy at seeing a friend elected to Congress. David is smart, dedicated, and I believe will do a good job and serve constituents like BIll Young did. But that joy is tempered by the reality that the GOP in Florida and nationwide needs to start abandoning conventional wisdom, embrace an intellectually consistent and expansive agenda of individual liberty and economic liberty, and get back to the nuts and bolts of growing a movement, not expanding office space in Washington DC.
Having grown up voting for Bill Young, I am glad his seat remained red. But I am not so young that I can’t see the danger on the horizon if the way we do business doesn’t change. From discouraging competition, to becoming part of a corrupt culture in Washington, to demanding blind obedience, rather than shared goals, we are operating on borrowed time.
The rise in absentee and early voting, the decentralization of information, and the ascendency of the Independent requires change. Or else this week’s celebration will be tomorrow’s hangover.