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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, it’s hard to imagine Lawson winning in November, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Each cycle, my goal as a handicapper is to identify Congressional races where the result will mean a partisan takeover, not merely where the outcome will be close.

To some, this may seem like an odd distinction. After all, if an election is close — within a few points — doesn’t that also mean that the seat potentially could flip from one party to the other?

For most races, of course, the answer is “yes,” but not for all. The best example of it this cycle may well be Florida’s 2nd district, in the state’s panhandle.

The 2004 and 2008 presidential results in the district were close, so freshman Rep. Steve Southerland (R) can’t take his re-election completely for granted. And yet, while a new Democratic poll showed Southerland and challenger Al Lawson (D) in a dead heat (as did two before it), it’s hard to imagine Lawson winning in November.

That conclusion shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of Lawson, a former college basketball player who played briefly in the pros before serving years in the Florida House and Senate. He is personable and likable, and he knocked off a favored state legislator in the Democratic Congressional primary this year.

Nor am I disputing the accuracy of pollster Ron Lester’s survey, which showed Lawson and Southerland tied at 43 percent in the ballot test and 47 percent after “positive” paragraphs about the two men were read to respondents. It’s simply that, in this case, the poll has little predictive value.

Southerland is likely to win re-election with somewhere from 51 percent to 53 percent of the vote, and that assessment is based on the makeup of the district, which, I believe, augurs well for both a close outcome and a Southerland victory next month. And that’s why I have resisted moving the race to a more competitive category.

Florida’s 2nd district is really two districts in one.

Leon County (Tallahassee) is home to a large black population, a large number of colleges and universities, and the same kind of liberals who have been drawn to Asheville, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Madison, Wis. The rest of the district is filled with conservative whites, who have a very different view of the two parties and of the role of government.

Leon County gave Barack Obama more than 61 percent of the vote in 2008, but he lost the 2nd district by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent. That means he got absolutely clobbered in the non-Leon County portion of the district.

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