On Thursday, Democrats released a poll showing Democrat Gwen Graham running neck-and-neck with GOP Rep. Steve Southerland II. They could have saved themselves a few thousand dollars because you don’t need a poll to show that Florida’s 2nd District will be competitive. But that also doesn’t mean that Southerland is on the verge of defeat.
As my colleague Stu Rothenberg wrote in a Roll Call column last October, the Panhandle seat is one of the most polarized districts in the entire House. Democrats just haven’t been able to get over the top in the past two election cycles.
“Voters in this district are incredibly polarized. It’s 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,” Rothenberg wrote in the column last fall.
Indeed, in the last three presidential elections, the GOP nominee has received 52.4 percent, 51.9 percent and 51.5 percent. The Democratic nominee received 46.5 percent, 47 percent and 47.8 percent. That’s remarkable stability across three very different election years of 2012, 2008 and 2004.
Southerland knocked off Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd in 2010, and Democrats targeted the congressman for defeat in 2012. Three pre-election polls showed Southerland in a dead heat with former state Sen. Al Lawson. But that gave a false impression that the seat was on the cusp of turning over.
“So, I don’t have trouble accepting the Lester poll or other private Democratic surveys showing Lawson running even with Southerland in the mid-40s. But Lawson’s problem is that he is starting to bump up against his ceiling. He will need to get half of the votes cast in the district, and he can’t get there next month,” Rothenberg wrote at the time. “Given that, while some observers look at Lester’s poll and see a possible Lawson victory, all I see is a candidate getting his base vote — a vote that, because of the district’s makeup, will fall a few points short of what he needs.”
“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.”
Southerland defeated Lawson 53 percent to 47 percent.
Democratic strategists will argue that Graham, the daughter of a popular former U.S. senator, will outperform the African-American former state legislator. It’s certainly possible, but observers on all sides should be aware that we have seen the beginning of this movie before. It’s up to Democrats to prove this will have a different ending.
Once again, Florida's 2nd District is rated Lean Republican by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.