Thursday, December 4, 2008

Did Martinez Do Florida GOP a Favor?

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight says that Sen. Mel Martinez’s retirement may help the GOP keep the seat.

Wise observers like Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling are already concluding that this is in fact good news for the GOP. Martinez’ approval ratings are marginal; a Quinnipiac poll last month pegged his numbers at 42% approve and 33% disapprove, and a Strategic Vision poll was broadly similar — 47% approve, 41% disapprove. Public Policy Polling, whose approval ratings can be idiosyncratic, had more pessimistic numbers: 23% approve, 37% disapprove. On average, that works out to 37% approve, 37% disapprove, or almost exactly breakeven.

There are no hard and fast rules about this, because approval ratings depend heavily on question wording and are often not directly comparable to one another, but from having studied these numbers in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, the following general rules of thumb apply:

— If the average of candidate’s net approval ratings (his approval rating less his disapproval rating) is +20 or better, he is usually on track to win re-election in the absence of significant game-altering events. Caveat: significant game-altering events occur more often that you might think for US Senators, especially two years out from an election. Probability of retaining seat: 90-100%.

— If the average of a candidate’s net approval ratings are +10 to +20, it may be possible to defeat him with a superior campaign (Kay Hagan, 2008) and/or in a wave election (Democrats, 1994) without specific, game-altering events, although the odds are usually against it. Probability of retaining seat: 70-95%.

— If the average of a candidate’s net approval ratings are in the single digits — +1 to +9 — he is significantly vulnerable, and may be anywhere from a modest favorite to a slight underdog depending on the strength of the opposition. Probability of retaining seat: 45-75%.

— If the average of a candidate’s approval ratings are even or negative, he is usually no better than a toss-up against well-organized opposition, and often somewhat worse. Probability of retaining seat: 25-50%.

Martinez’ numbers had placed him right on the brink of the third and the fourth categories, implying that he was about even-money to retain his seat. Can his potential Republican replacements do better than that?

Short answer: if the Republican candidate is a known quantity in Florida — i.e. Jeb Bush or Charlie Crist — they are already running as an incumbent, as it were, and they don’t have to start from scratch. And since there are no state-wide Democrats with the name-recognition and campaign structure already in place, they would have to start from behind. Also, if either Mr. Bush or Mr. Crist entered the race, they would basically wipe out any lesser-known primary contenders. And while the Bush name may be toxic in the rest of the country, Jeb Bush left office with high approval ratings and none of the stigma that accumulated to his older brother. So far Mr. Crist has proven to be an inoffensive governor, and in the presidential race just concluded demonstrated that while he did support the McCain-Palin ticket, his backing was tepid at best.

While Florida went for Barack Obama in the 2008 election, it is far from a solidly blue state, especially north of Orlando and into the panhandle. We already have one Democrat in the Senate — Bill Nelson — and the chances that they will pick up the second seat would be a stretch even if Mr. Martinez was still in the race.

Then what? If Jeb Bush does end up in the Senate, my guess is that it would not be as a steppingstone for a run for the White House. He would only be in the Senate for a year before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, and while Florida may know the difference between Jeb and George, I doubt the rest of the nation is quite ready for yet another adventure into Bushland.