Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida Special Election Signals (Drumroll ...) Nothing

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Sink win would be proof the Democratic Party can survive an onslaught of Obamacare-related attacks in a moderate area by running a candidate without a congressional résumé who doubles down on local issues. It would also signal that vouching for a repeal of Obamacare (as Jolly is doing) is as politically perilous as Democrats say it is.
A Jolly victory would signal that the GOP is capable of tying even a strong Democratic recruit with no congressional baggage to the unpopular health-care law and the unpopular president. Such an outcome should send chills down the spines of congressional Democrats with actual ties to Obamacare and the president.

That's Sean Sullivan of the The Fix writing about the upcoming special election in Florida's 13th district, and it couldn't be more wrong if it was Matthew Brock updating the Buttafuoco story. If it was Ted Baxter pronouncing, well, anything. If it was Sam Malone rapping about a groin in-ju-ry. Translation for non-sitcom watchers: It's really, really wrong.

A win by Democrat Alex Sink (and she seems to have the upper hand, if the current tea leaves are right) would signal nothing at all about anything. And if Republican David Jolly wins? Exactly the same.

Huge problem No. 1: Special elections simply don't predict very much about the upcoming election cycle results. At least one paper hints that takeovers by one party in multiple special elections mean something, but with only one election, we're talking about a very, very, weak signal at best.

Huge problem No. 2: Elections aren't all created equal. Therefore, whether a candidate wins or loses isn't enough to tell us whether any particular campaign message worked. Structural factors going into the election, such as the partisan tilt of the district and candidate quality, mean that things aren't dead even up to the point when people start seeing the ads.

Huge problem No. 3: The ads aren't the only thing that happens in campaigns. There are electioneering efforts, and candidate appearances, and all sorts of other things. Generally, ads (and campaign themes in general) should be expected to have some effect in an election for an open House seat with heavy spending on both sides, but it's still a very limited one. Moreover, mobilizing a special-election electorate is going to be different than mobilizing the people who may or may not vote in a November election. It's a smaller group, and different things might appeal to the different set of sometimes-voters.

Put it all together and drawing conclusions from one special election about how issues, or campaign messages, will play in November is basically a fool's errand.

That's not to say that some party actors might not buy into that hype anyway, even if it's dead wrong. So reporters should tell us about that, if it happens. But they shouldn't be peddling the hype themselves.

It's a House seat. And a very close race, so of course the parties are going to go all out to win it; given the current districts, there just aren't all that many close House elections. And it's easier to raise money for special elections because there's less competition for people who want to see an immediate bang for their buck. Moreover, given incumbency effects, it isn't just one election; it's an open-seat election that could affect what will happen in this particular district for years. That makes it an important story.

But it doesn't tell us much of anything about what will happen in November, and certainly doesn't "signal" what effects Obamacare will have in November. Please, reporters, let's not hype this one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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