Another Cycle, Another Poll Memo About Florida’s 2nd District

by Stuart Rothenberg March 19, 2014 · 10:05 AM EDT

Democratic memos about the party’s optimistic prospects in Florida’s 2nd district never die. They simply fade away until the next election cycle, when a new one miraculously surfaces.

This cycle, the memo is from Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, and it insists that the Democratic nominee for Congress, Gwen Graham, is “uniquely positioned” to oust Republican Rep. Steve Southerland in November. (A September 2013 poll for EMILY’s List showed much the same thing, according to a blog post written by my colleague, Nathan Gonzales, here.)

The purpose of the March 10 edition is no different from similar memos in 2012 from pollsters Lester & Associates and Hamilton Campaigns, which suggested that Democratic state Sen. Al Lawson was poised for a possible upset of Southerland.

I wrote a very detailed analysis of the Southerland-Lawson race in this space on Oct. 9, 2012 — “Can a Race Be Tight and Yet Not Competitive?” — arguing that although the race looked close and Southerland would win only narrowly, there was almost no chance of a Lawson victory.

After looking at the district’s makeup and considering its very consistent performance in 2004 and 2008, I argued: “Voters in this district are incredibly polarized. It’s unlikely that 51 percent of the voters in this district would vote for any liberal Democrat, while close to 47 percent of district voters will always vote for the Democrat, no matter who he or she is.”

I ended the column with a rare (and almost always unwise) bit of certainty by writing “while some observers look at Lester’s poll and see a possible Lawson victory, all I see is a candidate getting his base vote — a vote that, because of the district’s makeup, will fall a few points short of what he needs.”

In fact, Lawson came in at 47.2 percent of the vote, while Barack Obama drew 46.5 percent in the district. Interestingly, the president (158,753 votes) and Lawson (157,634) drew almost the same vote.

I was not surprised given the sharply polarized vote of a nearly evenly divided district. African Americans, college students and white liberals voted for Obama and Lawson, while conservative whites voted for Mitt Romney and Southerland. That’s the way it works in this district, where relatively few voters are up for grabs in federal races.

Democrats can win non-federal races in this district. Alex Sink beat Republican Rick Scott by more than 6 points in the district in the 2010 gubernatorial contest, and the Democratic nominee for the state’s chief financial officer also eked out a narrow win in the district.

But the Republican nominees for state attorney general and state agriculture commissioner carried the district narrowly in 2010, as did Republican Senate nominee Marco Rubio. But Rubio drew only 49.1 percent of the vote in his three-way race.

Gwen Graham, the daughter of former governor and former Sen. Bob Graham, looks to be a stronger challenger than Lawson. She has plenty of cash and contacts. Graham showed just more than $1 million in the bank at the end of December, an impressive war chest and slightly more than Southerland’s $840,000 on hand.

But 2014 could be worse for Democrats than 2012 was, and it certainly isn’t yet clear that Graham can beat Southerland.

To win, she needs to thread the needle, attracting the same generally conservative white voters who couldn’t stomach Scott in his initial bid for governor, but also getting a strong turnout from African Americans and younger voters who supported Obama. That’s an uphill challenge, especially considering historical turnout patterns among 18- to 29-year-olds. Their participation drops off in non-presidential years.

Lawson, who is black, was never going to be able to separate himself from Obama when the two of them were on the ballot together. Graham has at least an opportunity to do so, but the midterm’s dynamics work against her.

By the time Election Day rolls around, voters in Florida’s 2nd district are likely to see the House contest as a referendum on the president, which would undermine Graham’s prospects. And although the daughter of the former governor and senator does not have a voting record that Republicans can use against her, she is not a blank slate.

Gwen Graham was a national surrogate and Southern regional adviser for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential effort, and later that cycle she was the Florida Democratic Party’s national campaign liaison with John Kerry’s presidential campaign. She has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, the group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, and received contributions from labor unions and Democratic House members, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Unfortunately for Graham, federal races lead toward more partisan and ideological voting (undoubtedly driven by massive amounts of money from “outside” groups), not less. And the more ideological and partisan the election, the better things are for Southerland.

The race certainly is worth watching, but Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves about Graham’s prospects against Southerland.