"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." This saying is attributed to Freud (though we don't really know if he said it) and it expresses the idea that oftentimes we overanalyze some simple things. Though at times some event or moment has pointed significance, and this, I think, is true for the special election for the congressional district that just occurred in Florida.
In this election in a swing district in a swing state (President Obama carried it barely in 2008 and 2012), Democrats seemed positioned to win. They nominated a much more well-known candidate (Alex Sink), they spent significantly more money than Republicans, they employed all the supposed cutting edge tactics from President Obama's re-election campaign (read big or metadata) and they were running against a Republican (David Jolly) who was a former lobbyist and virtually unknown at the time he started. And the Dems lost! What happened?
I have written much in the past how many folks overplay tactics, and way underplay the significance of the political environment in which parties and candidates are running. It is the mood of the country or the electorate that matters most - by far.
If I were designing a pie chart for elections, I would say at least 90 percent of the outcome of an election can be attributed to the environment or mood of the country. And the other 10 percent can be divided up between candidates, tactics and mechanics. But, unfortunately, many in the media spend 90 percent of the time talking about tactics (and many campaign consultants, as well), and only 10 percent of the time focusing on the political environment.
I have suggested previously that in 2008 the dynamics were such that a Democrat was going to get elected president regardless who was nominated and how the campaign was carried out. In 2012, I said that if Obama's job approval was 50 percent or higher, it didn't matter what kind of campaign they ran or who was the Republican nominee, the Democrat was going to win re-election. His approval hit this mark and he won.
And in an earlier column I wrote that despite all of the talk of Obama's superior technology and tactics and plethora of campaign offices in target states, Mitt Romney actually overperformed in the 12 target swing states in 2012. Let me say that again, Romney actually did slightly better than Obama in the 12 target states when you compare results with the rest of the country!
While big data or metadata tactics can help in small ways at the margins, they cannot overcome the political environment of the country. And we saw this again in the special election results just this week in Florida.
Big waves always beat big data. Two-thirds of the country believes we are on the wrong track and the president's job approval is in the low-40s, and this sets up huge problems for the Democrats headed into the midterms.
And while Obamacare remains unpopular (not by huge margins), it is not the cause and effect of why the special election turned against Democrats or why they are headed for difficulties in 2014.
Obamacare is a symptom of a bigger problem. The country believes we are headed in the wrong direction across the board, and they are upset and disappointed in the president's leadership. And looking at previous midterms, the single best indicator of what is likely to happen is the incumbent president's job approval. When you are looking for what is likely to happen, look to the mood of the citizens, not the tactics of the campaigns.
And, interestingly, we can say the same thing about the personal relationships in our lives. Mood matters way more than data, whatever the great factual arguments I lay out to my partner or children, or the data points I may try to reason with. If they are in a certain mood, the people close to us will not respond. And moods settle into or emanate from our hearts, and hearts are always more powerful than heads.
I have tried to present very reasonable and data based arguments to folks in my life, and if the mood is off, then I was just wasting my time. Better to just accept people for where they are, and move on, until the mood begins to shift. Or, more powerfully, find out what is at the heart of the mood, and seek to meet people there, and connect at that heart level.
So the parties and candidates should worry less about mechanics, tactics and big data, and much more about the political environment, and the mood of the voters. And not try to convince voters why their mood is wrong, but seek to understand why that mood is present, and see what help people need in a heartfelt way. And then the chances of success will grow considerably. Or, as in relationships, let folks vent what they are feeling, get a little rest or something to eat before engaging them in a conversation or discussion.
There you have it.
Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.