In the past few days, Democrats have experienced something close to a mass freakout regarding their chances in this November's midterm elections. An anonymous Democratic lawmaker told the New York Times that President Obama, weakened by low approval ratings, is "poisonous" to Democratic candidates. ABC reported that some Democrats are "increasingly worried the health care law is political poison." Columnist Maureen Dowd concluded that "Democratic panic has set in." When "poison" and "panic" are the words used to describe a campaign, there's likely to be trouble ahead.
The immediate reason for the consternation is Democrat Alex Sink's narrow loss to Republican David Jolly in the special election to fill the House seat from Florida's 13th Congressional District. Commentators and politicos always say it's a mistake to read too much into the results of a special election, but that hasn't stopped anyone from declaring the results an ominous sign for Democrats.
The problem is, it appears both sides could be learning the wrong lessons from Florida.
First, the fact that so many Democrats thought Sink would win indicates they were simply too confident to begin with. The Florida 13th is a pretty closely matched district, so in a non-presidential year, when a Republican wins by a 1.8-percentage-point margin in a race in which neither cracked 50 percent — that really shouldn't be a huge surprise to anyone.
But Democrats overestimated their strength. "They thought that at a tactical level, they had the ability to win seats like that because they had a better turnout operation," says a Republican strategist who has studied the race. Wrong.
Still, some Democrats will conclude that tweaking turnout in future races will fix the problem. But they don't seem to be considering the possibility that their turnout was depressed by their positions on some key issues, most notably Obamacare.
Jolly favored repealing the Affordable Care Act, while Sink stuck with the Democratic "keep and fix" position. After Sink's loss, some Democrats quickly concluded that the party just needs to fight harder on behalf of Obamacare.
But that, too, could be the wrong lesson. "Democrats are saying what they really have to do is go out and defend Obamacare," says the GOP consultant. If, however, voters in the Florida 13th are like voters everywhere else, they are most concerned about the economy. So if Republicans persuasively cast Obamacare as part of a bigger set of economic problems, then Democrats will have to find an equally persuasive rebuttal, which they did not have in the Sink-Jolly race. "The thing [Democrats] didn't understand in Florida was the right set of economic messages to make it work," says the GOP strategist.
If Democrats fail to make a broader economic case, then simply fighting harder on behalf of Obamacare won't help.
Then there are the Republicans' wrong lessons. The most obvious is the conclusion that all the party has to do is run negative ads on Obamacare and wait for victory. It's certainly a tempting conclusion; the health care law could well be "political poison" in a lot of congressional districts. But there is still the larger economic message that voters want to hear, and on the day after the Florida election, House Speaker John Boehner tried to keep the GOP focused on a bigger picture.
"I would attribute the win to the fact that our candidate was focused on the issues that were most important to the people in Florida 13 -- and that's the economy and jobs," Boehner said, "because the American people are still asking the question: Where are the jobs?"
Boehner tied economic concerns to Obamacare, arguing that the Affordable Care Act is imposing new burdens on both employers and workers. But for him, and for a lot of GOP strategists around the country, joblessness plus weak growth plus Obamacare are all part of one big, bad Obama economic picture.
The question now is which party will better learn the lessons of Florida. The Democrats are in a funk at the moment, but Republicans need to be just as wary of misreading the Sink-Jolly results. It would be an unhappy result for the GOP if Democrats come away from the race strengthened by the self-examination that defeat brings.
"There's nothing that focuses you better than a loss," says the GOP strategist. "And there's nothing that gives you less ability to understand a situation than when you win — you won, so everything you did was right."
Strategists in both parties will know more after they've had a chance to interview voters in the 13th District. But the first thing they need to do is abandon their own preconceived notions about the race.