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Can a Race Be Tight and Yet Not Competitive?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Although a new Democratic poll shows GOP Rep. Steve Southerland (above) and challenger Al Lawson in a dead heat, itís hard to imagine Lawson winning in November, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Of course, redistricting has changed the districtís boundaries slightly, improving its Democratic performance. Obama received 47.83 percent of the vote in the redrawn district, while 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D) received 46.97 percent. Sen. John McCain (R) won the redrawn district with 51.94 percent, while George W. Bush carried it with 51.48 percent when he was re-elected.

Those numbers are unusual and very telling.

The Democratic and Republican votes in both elections were remarkably consistent. Most districts that Bush carried with 51 percent went for Obama four years later, but not this one. Why not?

Voters in this district are incredibly polarized. Itís unlikely that 51 percent of the voters in this district would vote for any liberal Democrat, while close to 47 percent of district voters will always vote for the Democrat, no matter who he or she is.

The 2nd is the only district in Florida where McCain ran measurably better than Bush. And it is one of a relatively few districts in the nation where that happened.

McCain ran ahead of Bush in a swath of districts stretching from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia down through eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and parts of the Deep South, then all the way to Oklahoma and eastern Texas.

Some of these districts have substantial black populations, but others donít. What they all have in common is large numbers of extremely conservative, white voters who didnít like Obama and have turned strongly against his party in recent years.

Now, ask yourself, if Obama got less than 48 percent of the vote in Floridaís 2nd district in 2008, is he going to get more than that next month? Even if he does, is he going to carry the district? And if Obama canít carry the district, how is Lawson going to in a presidential year?

Lawson, an African-American Democrat whose website shows few differences from the national party on issues, will have a hard time appealing to conservative white voters who will see him as another Obama supporter, just as the conservative Southerland will have a hard time getting the votes of white liberals and black voters who will regard him as an opponent of Obama and the Democratic agenda.

Thatís why the Democratic primary was so important, and thatís why national Democratic strategists were counting on state Rep. Leonard Bembry, who had been endorsed by the Blue Dogs, to win their partyís nomination. A moderate white Democratic candidate might be able to attract a handful of conservative voters, maybe enough to win.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a white Democrat who runs as a moderate ó his website lists reducing the federal deficit, cutting spending and ďfixingĒ the health care law as priorities ó is at 49 percent on the Senate ballot in the Lester poll of 2nd district voters. He does have a good chance of carrying the district against a weak GOP Senate nominee.

Lawsonís vote is likely to track with the presidentís in the district. The Lester survey showed Obama getting 46 percent, a point less than Mitt Romney. But Romney will win the district, as McCain and Bush did.

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