Alex Sink may be leading David Jolly in the Tampa Bay Times' poll, as well as in fundraising and name recognition, but that doesn't necessarily make her the overwhelming frontrunner in Pinellas County's congressional race.
It comes down to that lamest and most obvious of political cliches: It's all about turnout.
Neither campaign has any doubt that significantly more Republicans than Democrats will vote in the special election to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. The only question is by how big a margin, and whether Democrat Sink can compensate with non-partisan voters.
Consider that in 2012, when the Obama campaign mounted the most massive get-out-the-vote operation ever seen, 5 percent more Republicans turned out than Democrats in the 13th Congressional District. The zenith for Democrats was 2008, when Republicans outperformed Democrats in the district by a mere 3 percentage points.
But 2010, as a non-presidential election year, probably is a more appropriate comparison. The GOP turnout advantage in 2010 was more than 10 percentage points in Congressional District 13.
There are two ways of viewing this special election, and Republican newcomer Jolly seems to be paying attention to both.
• The winner will be determined by the motivation level of Republican voters, who at least appear to be highly motivated to send President Barack Obama a message about the Affordable Care Act.
A lot of people were taken aback by how Jolly positioned himself as an arch conservative in last week's televised debate — overturn Roe v. Wade, deploy the military into Syria, repeal Obamacare entirely, reject federal high speed rail money, reject $50 billion to expand Medicaid access, oppose a minimum wage increase. Don't forget that Jolly needs Republicans to turn out in huge numbers to win what is really a moderate, swing district.
• The winner will be determined by non-partisan independent voters; Sink will win if she pulls enough of the independent vote to overcome the Republican turnout advantage. (Our poll shows her leading Jolly among independents, 33 percent to 27 percent, and Libertarian Lucas Overby with 9 percent).
Nearly 1 in 4 of the district's voters are independents not registered to either party, but based on past elections they will at best account for 1 in 5 votes cast.
We've seen little effort by the Jolly campaign to reach out beyond his GOP base, other than saying he opposes offshore drilling and would not have voted for the Paul Ryan budget proposals that turned Medicare into a voucher system — both no-brainer stances in this district. On Wednesday, though, he surprised us with a snub of the tea party.
Jolly's campaign told us that had he been in Congress, he would have joined the 33 of 232 Republicans who voted Tuesday to raise the nation's debt ceiling and allow the government to raise more money to pay its bills. Not a single Republican House member from Florida supported the measure.
"I blame the President for refusing to negotiate any long-term spending cuts as part of a debt ceiling raise. It's the height of irresponsibility to not include spending cuts with the debt limit raise," Jolly said in a statement. "At the end of the day, though, if this was the only legislative option I would have supported it."
Voting by mail already is underway, and Democrats are highly encouraged by how competitive they have been early on in returned ballots. Still, who would have thought a few months ago amid the last debt ceiling debate and a government shutdown that Democrats could recruit an A-list nominee like former Florida Chief Financial Officer Sink who could well lose to a little-known, first-time candidate like Jolly?
Sink has starred in this movie before. Who would have thought that a no-name, first-time candidate, a CEO whose company paid a record fine for Medicare fraud, could be elected governor of Florida?
As in 2010, she is running for office while Obamacare is under attack. Unlike 2010, this time she is financially competitive.
This may be the first week that Republican and Democratic spending on all-important TV ads is roughly equal. To date, though, Sink and allied Democratic groups have spent about $3.7 million on TV ads, compared to $2.5 million by Jolly and Republican groups.
Sink can win. It's hardly a sure thing.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]