Why Florida’s 13th District Special Election Is Still a Tossup

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 10, 2014 · 10:31 PM EDT

After almost five months and more than $9 million in campaign spending, neither Democrat Alex Sink nor Republican David Jolly has a clear upper-hand in the final hours before Tuesday’s special election in Florida’s 13th District.

Even though polling continues to show a neck-and-neck race, many Democrats are privately and cautiously confident that Sink will prevail, based on her performance with absentee ballots (compared to Democrats who have won the district in the past) and polling of the outstanding voters.

But there is enough uncertainty to keep the Rothenberg Political Report rating of race as a Tossup.

Over the last month, the polling in the race has been remarkably consistent, as it has had Sink and Jolly within the margin of error. And the polls have shown the undecided vote between 7 and 9 points. That is significant when the candidates are within a point or two of each other.

Polling has also shown libertarian candidate Lucas Overby receiving 6 percent to 7 percent of the vote. That is likely overstating his support in the district (he seems more likely to receive between three and four percent, according to operatives tracking the race), but it is unclear whether he is drawing disproportionately from Jolly or Sink in those polls.

There is one certainty in the race: the winning party will overplay the results, the losing party underplay it, and the lessons from the election will likely be somewhere in the middle.

Special elections can be bellwethers — except when they’re not. In 2008, Democrats won a trio of competitive special elections before gaining 21 more seats that November and adding to the party’s House majority. In May 2010, Democrats won a supposedly bellwether special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District six months before losing 63 seats in the House.

If Democrats win, they will be emboldened to implement their defense against Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act (fix, not repeal) into competitive races nationwide. If Republicans win, the long march against Obamacare will continue. For a closer look at the messaging battle, see Paul Kane’s piece from Pinellas County in The Washington Post.

Looking at the results from a different angle, whichever party loses on Tuesday will immediately blame their nominee. The backbiting against Jolly has already begun, courtesy of a recent Politico piece. But it’s not surprising, considering many GOP operatives didn’t want Jolly in the first place. They wanted state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who lost the primary.

Even though Republicans are defending the 13th District after GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young’s death, it will be more difficult for Democrats to explain away a loss. As my colleague Stuart Rothenberg wrote in early January (“The Race Democrats Can’t Afford to Lose”), Democrats and Sink enjoyed most of the traditional measures of success in a race including higher name identification, better reputation and more money. A loss won’t stop Democrats from blaming Sink (as they did in the 2010 gubernatorial election) but it’s more difficult to swallow considering the party courted her and cleared the field for her.

Polls close at 7 p.m. EST. Remember that what actually happens in the race isn’t as important was what lessons party operatives learn about the race, because those lessons will help guide the parties’ strategies this cycle.