Thursday, October 23rd, 2014
Mostly False
Democratic National Committee
In the recent House special election in Florida, Democrats "got outspent in a Republican district."

Democratic National Committee on Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 in a fundraising email

Democrats say Alex Sink 'got outspent in a Republican district'

David Jolly and Alex Sink during a break in one of their debates. Jolly defeated Sink in a special election on March 11, 2014.

The votes in the special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District were barely in before the blame game began.

On March 11, 2013, Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in the high-profile Pinellas County race to fill the seat of the late Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

Shortly after Sink lost, the Democratic National Committee sent out a fundraising email signed by the DNC’s CEO, Amy K. Dacey. In it, Dacey called the result "really scary" because "Republican super PACs and outside groups rode to the rescue of a straight-up corporate lobbyist (Jolly) -- spending $5 million to tear down his Democratic opponent."

After urging recipients of the email to "chip in $3 or more," Dacey offered an analysis of the outcome:

"In a district that Republicans have held for almost six decades, we nearly pulled off an incredible upset thanks to grassroots support from Democrats like you -- but we fell short for one reason: We got outspent in a Republican district. And call me old fashioned, but I think people, and not special interests, should decide elections."

We wondered whether the DNC is correct to say that Democrats "got outspent in a Republican district." We’ll address the claim in two parts.

Did Democrats get outspent?

Some money in campaigns is raised and spent by the candidate. Other funds are spent by outside groups, ranging from state parties to labor unions to the National Rifle Association. To fully understand how much money is sloshing around a particular race, you have to include both types. You also have to combine the money spent to promote a candidate with that spent to attack their opponent.

Michael Beckel -- a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics -- looked at how much the candidates reported raising and spending in their official Federal Election Commission disclosures through Feb. 19, the last pre-election filing date. He then looked at the amounts they reported raising when they filed more limited "48-hour" reports through election day. Finally, Beckel added the amounts spent by outside groups.

Beckel’s total? About $6.4 million for "Team Sink," and about $6.3 million for "Team Jolly."

"Both Democrats and Republicans went all-in," Beckel told PolitiFact. "Neither side can claim to have been outgunned."

This is not to say there weren’t differences in where the two campaigns’ financial support came from. And those are relevant points when checking the DNC’s comment.

When we checked with the DNC, they noted that spending by outside groups tilted toward Jolly. They are correct. Here’s a summary of both outside spending and candidate spending in the special election, using data from the Center for Responsive Politics. (It differs slightly from Beckel’s calculations, but is generally similar.)

 

Data through Feb. 19

Pro-Sink

Pro-Jolly

Outside spending

$3,752,057

$5,070,604

Candidate spending

$1,569,762

$857,997

Total spending

$5,321,819

$5,928,601

 

This shows that Jolly benefited from a level of outside spending that was about 35 percent higher than what Sink benefited from.

By contrast, Sink outraised Jolly in money that her own campaign raised. She raised about 80 percent more than Jolly did.

On balance, Jolly and the outside groups that supported him did outspend Sink and her allies by about $600,000 -- an 11 percent edge, give or take.

But this isn’t the whole story. As we noted, this data on spending stops at Feb. 19, a point several weeks before the election. Stopping here ignores what each candidate had in their war chest -- much of which they would presumably want to spend through the election.

So we also looked at what each of the candidates had as "cash on hand" -- essentially, money that hadn’t been spent yet. Here’s what we found:
 

Data through Feb. 19

Pro-Sink

Pro-Jolly

Candidate + outside spending

$5,321,819

$5,928,601

Cash on Hand

$971,587

$182,189

Spending plus cash on hand

$6,293,406

$6,110,790

 

So, adding in cash on hand that was likely to be spent before election day, the advantage shifts to "Team Sink."

This data suggests that her financial position was no worse in this election than Jolly’s, and perhaps a little better. And that would undercut the DNC’s point that she "got outspent."

"Jolly’s campaign may have been sunk without outside groups coming to his aid, but that’s only part of the story," Beckel said. "Thanks to outside group activity on both sides, neither candidate was outgunned. Both Democrats and Republicans made huge investments in the race."

Is Florida’s 13th a Republican district?

On this question, too, the data is mixed.

On the one hand, the district's party registration breakdown is 170,402 Republicans and 159,022 Democrats (plus 111,114 without a party affiliation). The seat had been held (with some variations in its borders) by Young, a Republican, for 44 years. In recent years, his worst re-election margin was 57 percent of the vote. And a widely used method for characterizing the political leanings of districts -- the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index -- calls the 13th a "Republican +2" district, which means that during the previous two presidential elections, the district voted an average of 2 points more Republican than the nation did as a whole.

But other factors suggest that calling the 13th a "Republican district" is an exaggeration. Since voters do not always vote in lockstep with their party, Democrats have fared well in the 13th in recent years. Barack Obama won the district in 2008 by nearly 4 percentage points, and in 2012 by 1.4 percentage points. Sink won the district both during her losing gubernatorial bid in 2010 and her successful run for chief financial officer in 2006.

Given this, Young’s margins of victory are an outlier that have more to do with his long tenure as an incumbent. And a district that is "Republican +2" places it near the exact partisan middle of the House of Representatives.

In the world of political handicappers, this means the 13th is a quintessential "competitive" or "swing" district, not a Republican one.

"It's about as evenly divided as you can get," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"We thought this district was competitive before the election, and we still think it’s a competitive district after the election," agreed Nathan Gonzales, who analyzes races for the similarly nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Our ruling

In a fundraising letter after the Florida special election, the Democratic National Committee said Democrats "got outspent in a Republican district." Both claims have a grain of truth, but are exaggerated.

By the Feb. 19 cutoff for disclosure -- a few weeks before the election was held -- Jolly and his supporters had outspent Sink and her supporters. But if you take into account Sink’s big advantage in banked money -- dollars she was likely to spend in the race’s final weeks -- that edge disappears, and "Team Sink" takes a narrow overall lead.

Meanwhile, nonpartisan analysts agree that the district is more accurately labeled "toss-up" than "Republican" in its partisan leanings. On balance, we rate the claim Mostly False.