Alex Wagner's Guests Contradict MSNBC Spin Re: GOP Win in Fla. Special Election

MSNBC had a bit of trouble keeping their guests on-message during Wednesday’s NOW with Alex Wagner. While speculating as to why Democrat Alex Sink lost to Republican David Jolly in Tuesday's special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district, Wagner and her MSNBC crew tried to push the idea that low turnout was to blame.

 Addressing Adam C. Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, Wagner wondered:



[D]o you feel, Adam, that depressed turnout, that people were less enthusiastic about the race? If you look at the numbers yesterday night, 182,000 people turned out for the special election. In 2010, which is a comparable midterm, 267,000, considerably more people four years ago. Did the nationalness of this make Floridians less interested?
 

While Wagner was asking that question, the graphic at the bottom of the screen read “Sink Lost By 3,456 Votes In Low Turnout Election,” so it was clear that MSNBC was pushing the low-turnout meme.

Smith conceded that the negativity surrounding the race may have kept some voters at home. But then he went and contradicted the low-turnout talking point (emphasis mine):
 

But really, for a special election, this was actually a relatively good turnout. There was a special election in south Florida a while ago that was far less than this. So this had a lot of attention, turnout was about 40%, which for a special election, is not so terrible.
 

Wagner asked her other guest, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, for his view of the election, and Dionne echoed Smith on the turnout, saying, “[T]he turnout was okay for a special election, as Adam said.”

As soon as he finished saying that, a new chyron appeared on the screen that read, “Turnout Much Lower Than 2010, 2012 Elections.” Of course, that's an apples to oranges comparison.

Dionne did go on to talk about problems with Democratic turnout, but he and Smith had already made an important point: turnout was good for a special election. Any election not held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November will inherently draw fewer voters simply because of the non-Election Day date. But this election did well for one of its kind.

There’s no guarantee that increased turnout would have helped because this particular Florida district has more registered Republicans than Democrats. According to the Huffington Post, the district is 37 percent Republican and 35 percent Democrat, and it’s been held by a Republican for 40 years. That said, one should remember that, as Dave Weigel of Slate noted (emphasis mine):

In 2011, the state shrunk the [13th Congressional] district to fit most of Pinellas County, a peninsula resting between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. Republicans watched the county go for George W. Bush, then for Barack Obama, then for Barack Obama again. They watched it vote for Alex Sink, in 2010, when she ran for governor.
 

The bottom line: the 13th district stuck for decades with a congressman it trusted and respected, but in both national and state races, it was a swing district where Democrats had done well recently.

MSNBC can spin the election all it wants, but it really is a bad omen for Democrats in the November midterms.

Below is a transcript of the segment:

ALEX WAGNER: Let me ask you, though, do you feel, Adam, that depressed turnout, that people were less enthusiastic about the race? If you look at the numbers yesterday night, 182,000 people turned out for the special election. In 2010, which is a comparable midterm, 267,000, considerably more people four years ago. Did the nationalness of this make Floridians less interested?

ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times: I think the negativity may have depressed turnout. But really, for a special election, this was actually a relatively good turnout. There was a special election in south Florida a while ago that was far less than this. So this had a lot of attention, turnout was about 40%, which for a special election, is not so terrible.

WAGNER: E.J., what's your read on what happened last night? I mean, I know we can all get ready to throw our televisions -- and we all, not us political people, but actual Americans who have something better to do than just talk about the ACA all day -- are going to throw their television sets out the window a couple months before November, if this is any taste of what's to come. But how did you read Alex Sink's loss last night?



E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, thanks for having me on, and I'd love to be in the room when David Jolly meets all of the Washington operatives who 24 hours ago were throwing him under the bus...

WAGNER: Exactly.

DIONNE: ...in their efforts at spin. I think this is a wake-up call for Democrats. I hope they don't believe their spin, and I don't think they do. First, the turnout was okay for a special election, as Adam said. But I think there are real problems with Democratic turnout. And that's going to be a problem in the fall, and they've got to start -- Democrats have to look at what they are doing to energize their own voters. I think, secondly, that means they need a much more pointed economic message to draw their supporters to the polls. Stan Greenberg talked about this to my colleague at the Post, Greg Sargent today, and I think that's true. Thirdly, I think that they – there are people saying that Sink may have fought Obamacare to a draw basically by saying fix it, don't end it. And I think that is a fairly popular position. But I think Democrats still need to do a better job of defending Obamacare. So I think there are a lot of lessons here for Democrats. But I really think they should have won this race. This is exactly the kind of district they need to win to have any chance at all of making real inroads in the House. And so, I trust that they'll study this result very carefully.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.