Much has been written about the Democratic Party’s failures in the FL-13 Special Election last week. From speaking to people throughout the state in the past several days, we can put together a theme of the critical mistakes made by the Democratic Party and the Sink campaign.
The Florida Democratic Party (FDP) sent several staffers to assist on the Sink Campaign. Costs of this staff, we understand, were actually paid by the campaign via the FDP. Nonetheless, ultimate responsibility for the failure appears to rest with the DNC, the DCCC and the candidate’s staff and vendors—rather than with the FDP or with the candidate herself.
The following is based on several conversations with multiple sources.
- Vote by Mail abandoned – A decision was made about five days out to give up on chasing vote by mail requests. This may account for the late surge Jolly and the GOP enjoyed in early/absentee requests as reported by Peter Schorsch of Saint Petersblog.
- Failure to adjust Election Day targets – While the Sink campaign and the DCCC were both canvassing the district heavily, and also employing daily tracking polls, no changes were made to the election-day strategy based on what polling and canvassing were indicating. This helps explain the sluggish election-day turnout among Democrats, and in turn, Jolly’s ability to overcome a nearly two-thousand vote deficit entering Election Day.
- Direct mail and TV mistakes – We understand that the targeting and repetition of mail pieces was problematic. For example, a male voter in his twenties, with pro-choice inclinations, would have received up to six direct-mail pieces on the subject. While he would have voted for Sink, communications on other issues of importance for his demographic would have been more efficient. Another problematic example was the employment of Climate Change concerns rather than local, coastal environmental issues as a media message. This also applied to TV ads.
- Too many GOTV calls – Some Democrats complained about getting as many as NINE calls in a matter of ten hours to turn out to vote. At some point, you hit a law of diminishing returns with individual voters.
- Too many out-of-town staffers – Anyone who has worked politically in Pinellas County knows you need to use locals on the ground. But the Sink campaign combined staff from Hillsborough County with Tallahassee based FDP staff. This was a bad decision.
- Failure to define Jolly in the GOP primary and the general election – Since the Democrats felt they were better off facing Jolly instead of State Rep. Kathleen Peters, they did not work to raise the Republican candidate’s negatives early in the race. Thus, Jolly entered the general election campaign undefined. Sink, on the other hand, was well known to voters and clearly defined, yet her being over coached and too robotic in the candidate debates and forums, only served to negate her broad name recognition. By the time Sink should have been sealing the election, Jolly had metamorphosed from being undefined to much more likable than Sink. Ultimately, Sink was labeled as an “elitist” instead of Jolly who, as the Washington lobbyist and insider, could have very easily been portrayed as such if the messaging of the Sink campaign had remained focused.
These types of strategic decisions are what win and lose elections in this country. Still, the Democrats continue to make excuses for this loss in a seat that everybody, before last Tuesday, acknowledged as a critical bellwether. The excuses and spin have been largely over the top and embarrassing.
The Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, (D-Florida) and DCCC Chair Steve Israel (D-New York) have to bear the brunt of the blame. Certainly, the candidate made mistakes. Based on past elections, we knew that Alex Sink was not the most telegenic or confident candidate to have on the stump. Regardless of this, it was the strategic errors made by the party operatives, who primarily ran the race, that cost the party this seat.
Since the mid-1990s, I have heard that this particular seat would flip when Congressman Bill Young either retired or passed away. So the comments by the Democrats trying to spin the result as some sort of victory, when measured against what has transpired in prior elections, are comical. In another era, popular local officeholders in this state enjoyed bi-partisan support and Young was a throwback to that era. Ideology was often NOT a guiding principle for those who supported Young.
For the first time in decades, the Democrats came up against an ideological campaign and candidate after years of Pinellas County shifting further and further away from its Republican heritage of the Bill Cramer and Bill Young mold. Yet, the Democrats tossed away an election whose elements were all in favor of Sink, thanks to some silly mistakes.