Author’s Note: The first part of this analysis is largely from a write-up I did for local Democrats in Pasco County when the special election for House District 36 began. The election was triggered by Republican Representative Mike Fasano resigning his seat to take the appointed of Pasco Tax collector. Fasano, a moderate, has come out to endorse Democratic candidate Amanda Murphy over Republican candidate Bill Gunter. The district narrowly voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but voted for Rick Scott for Governor in 2010. The district is a major swing seat and key to any Democratic take-over of the Florida House. Large third party spending by conservative groups have come into play in the race in the last couple weeks. Election day is on Tuesday, October 15th.
Florida House District 36 is a strong swing seat in the state. The district is largely white, filled with middle to low income voters; with average income runs between $20,000 and $50,000. The district is generally coastal, suburban; including the cities of New Port Ritchey and Port Ritchey. The district is 37.3% Democratic, 34.3% Republican, and 28.4% NPA/third party. Independent voters decide elections in this district; which can swing from overwhelmingly in favor of a Democratic candidate to overwhelmingly against. Independent and third party voters make up no less than 25% of any precinct in the district; making almost every precinct in play for a well financed candidate. In the 2012 cycle alone, Republican and Democratic candidates won all but one precinct in their elections. Without urban African-American centers, Democrats have no safe precincts; while the lack of rural white precincts leave Republicans no safe precincts. The district is overwhelmingly white, which caused it to shift away from President Obama in 2012 – in line with the shift of white voters away from the President between 2008 and 2012.
While Obama lost narrow ground, he still won 51.2% of the vote in the district. At the same time, Bill Nelson secured 59% of the vote in the district.
With these two federal races, the district performed between 5% and 6% more Democratic than Pasco County in total. In two of Pasco’s countywide offices; there was dramatically more elasticity in Democratic performance. Incumbent Tax Collector, Mike Olson, the lone countywide Democrat in Pasco, won 73.8% in the district (winning 68.4% countywide). In the Sheriff’s race, Democratic challenger Kim Bogart only secured 38.7% in the district (winning 34.9% countywide).
The precinct maps show Olson winning all precincts while Bogart only won one precinct. The elasticity of the vote shows that any race is winnable or losable in this district.
Turnout will likely be low for the special election. In my original write-up, the estimated turnout was derived from the total vote in the August Primary of 2012. Pasco County’s turnout was 18% in August (In line with the turnout for the special election in House District 2 earlier this year). The turnout in the precincts of House District 36 comes to 15.7%. With current registration numbers, this means the likely vote could be as low as 15,000.
The precincts that are plurality Democratic are estimated to make up 56.6% of the ballots cast in the special election.
However, it is important to remember that independents will be key, as they make up between 23% and 33% in every precinct of the district.
Dynamics of the Race
Democrats landed a strong candidate with businesswoman Amanda Murphy. The party establishment quickly rallied around her in an effort to ensure no messy primary. The Republicans, meanwhile, were forced into a primary when three candidates qualified for the Republican nomination. Bill Gunter, a conservative pastor, was the top choice of the Republican leadership; which used their influence to generate high fundraising totals for Gunter. The Pasco County Republican Party Chairman, James Mathieu, as well as attorney Jeromy Harding, also filed for the seat. Gunter spent over $60,000 in the primary, far outpacing his opponents, and won with over 60% in the vote.
Republican turnout was 10%, much lower than the 27% Republican turnout seen in the August 2012 primary where Mike Fasano, then a term-limited state senator, won the primary for the state house.
Since the primary, Gunter has raised an additional $80,000, bringing is total to $160,000. Murphy, meanwhile, raised around $100,000; but had far more contributors than Gunter. Gunter’s fundraising has been predominantly big-dollar donations from out of Pasco. The graphic below highlights Gunter’s big-money fundraising. Gunter largely collected $500 checks and several four and five figure checks from the Republican Party of Florida.
Both parties have poured resources and money into the race, hoping to score a major off-cycle win. In addition, third party groups, largely backing Gunter, have been spending big on TV and mailers in the race. A third party group, Florida Jobs First, started by the millionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, is spending over $70,000 in cable advertising for Gunter.
The wave of outside money and Gunter’s strong ties to the Republican leadership prompted a wave of criticism from Mike Fasano. Fasano’s long history of moderation and constituency work have made him legend in Pasco County. The lawmaker often clashed with the conservative Republican leadership and his appointment as Tax Collector was certainly seen as the leaderships desire to get him out of their hair. Fasano was unhappy with Gunter’s lock-step with the leadership and announced he was voting for Murphy. This was soon followed with a formal endorsement of Murphy in the race. Fasano’s endorsement carries a great deal of weight in the district, with polls showing a Fasano endorsement would make them more likely to vote for that candidate. Democrats, meanwhile, have poured money into the race and have a powerful ground game to offset the third-party spending.
The Pasco SOE has published voter turnout for absentee and early voting as of this weekend. Currently 10,702 ballots have been cast, largely via absentee voting. While Democrats have an edge in the district, they currently trail by 330 votes cast. Republicans make up 43.4% of the ballots cast so far, Democrats make up 40.4%, and the rest goes to independents. However, its unclear if this margin will hold once election-day ballots are cast. Republicans generally vote more via absentee than Democrats and that is a large bulk of these numbers. However, the numbers themselves are not terrible for Democrats, as moderate Republicans may vote for Murphy because of Fasano’s endorsement.
Turnout right now stands at 11.29%. The precinct-level turnout shows that while some of the more Obama-friendly precincts are on the lower-end right now, their is not a huge drop-off in turnout in heavier Obama precincts.
Precincts with turnout above 11.2% gave Obama 48.4% of the vote and those below gave him 54%. If you swapped out the 2012 General election turnout percent with these current turnout figures (and thus altered the total votes given to Obama and Romney), Obama would still win the district with 50.5% of the vote. So the slightly lower turnout in heavier Obama precincts is not fatal. Again, how election day voting goes could shift these numbers.
Over the last few elections, the percent of the total cast ballots that take place on election day themselves has fluctuated. In the 2012 General, 43% of the total vote were from election day; while it was as high as 53% of the votes cast in the 2012 primary. During the primary last month, election day voting only accounted for 32% of ballots cast. If the 32% figure were the case for the upcoming general then total turnout will hover around 15,000 votes, similar to the 2012 primary turnout. However, at this point I would be inclined to believe that the heightened interest in the race will result in higher turnout. If election day turnout accounts for 47% of total votes cast (split the difference between 2012 primary and general), then an additional 9,000 ballots could be cast on Election Day; bringing total turnout closer to 20%. It is hard to predict, it could range from 5,000 to 10,000 additional votes. If the election day voters skew more Democratic, then the Republican turnout edge will diminish. Only election day will tell us for sure.
This race is an opportunity for both parties to show their muscle leading into the 2014 cycle. The third party spending aids Gunter, but Fasano and a strong Democratic ground game boost Murphy. Election day is just one day away. This post will be updated after the results come in.