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The Miami Dolphins had "no realistic path to victory" at ballot box

@MarcACaputo

The only poll that matters is on Election Day.

It’s a common cliché espoused by campaigns when surveys aren’t going their way.

But what happens when Election Day only has partial results and you lost big? Downplay the results.

“We would have won,” said Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Miami Dolphins star-crossed campaign seeking public money for stadium upgrades.

The partial results released Tuesday indicates that the Dolphins’ bid was a long shot from the start, with 43 percent supporting the plan and 57 percent opposed before the vote was essentially halted by the state due to legislative inaction.

To win, the Dolphins would probably have needed to win the remaining vote by roughly 52-48 percent, according to a Miami Herald analysis of the special elections likely voter turnout rate estimated by political consultants.

Put another way: The Dolphins effort needed the trend to reverse more than 18 percentage-points in its favor.

Also, opposition appeared to cut across racial, geographic and partisan lines, the Herald analysis, an independent poll and voter interviews indicated.

“There was no realistic path to victory,” said David Custin, the only Miami-Dade political consultant to sink his money, a paltry $3,000, into fighting the stadium plan.

“Tuesday’s vote means something. It was at least a type of poll and they lost after spending millions,” Custin said. “Any drop of opposition would have devastated the Dolphins.”

Few consultants and pollsters disagree that the campaign faced serious headwinds.

The Miami-Dade Republican Party approved a special resolution opposing the measure and Miami-Dade’s Democratic chair, Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, also fought it.

Also, county voters have a sour feeling about stadium deals in general.

In 2011, the county mayor was recalled in a special election partly due to his support for a generous tax package for the new Miami Marlins baseball stadium.

“I just kept thinking of the Marlins stadium,” said Eliza Kitchen, an 81-year-old Miami Democrat who voted against the Dolphin plan.

“I don’t see where the residents or the community overall benefits,” she said. “People who will get a job would be working on the renovations, but after that, there was no real benefit for the people.”

That sort of natural opposition against tax-stadium deals exists nearly everywhere, said John McLaughlin, a national Republican pollster who has conducted surveys in Florida, Miami-Dade and in New York for the New York Jets football team.

“There’s a general bias that’s tough to overcome,” McLaughlin said. “To win a deal like this at the polls, you have to prove it’s in the public interest, that it helps the economy and jobs.”

The Dolphins were doing just that.

The campaign’s get out the vote effort was scheduled to begin in earnest on May 4, the day after the state legislative session ended. Labor unions, business leaders and the hotel industry were going to be key players.

The University of Miami, whose Hurricanes football team plays in SunLife Stadium, was going to become more vocal as were international soccer boosters to broaden the appeal of the stadium deal and bring Hispanic voters along.

Flyers were in the mail to boost an absentee-ballot program – one of the best ways to bank votes for campaigns that have the money and know-how to conduct such an operation. Radio and TV ads were running.

But the legislative session ended May 3 without a bill authorizing the stadium-deal election. The election, funded by the Dolphins, was cancelled. House Speaker Will Weatherford refused to take up the bill, which was opposed by a number of fellow Republicans, including many from Miami-Dade.

"As I said all along, public financing of the SunLife Stadium had significant challenges. The referendum result was just one more example," Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican said. "The Dolphins are a great Florida team, and I hope the leadership will focus their energy on constructive and collaborative solutions."

Though the county released the results of 60,678 ballots cast, potentially thousands more were received by absentee ballot in the mail and were never opened, scanned or counted.

The results showed a stark difference between absentee-ballot voters and in-person early voters.

Absentee voters opposed the stadium deal almost 43-57 percent. But in-person early voters soured on it even more, 36-64 percent.

The early vote ballots was significant in that in-person voters can more closely represent Election Day voters because they actually head to the polls, whereas absentee-ballot voters tend to be older than the rest of the electorate and stay home.

“These incomplete numbers are irrelevant. If the 2012 election ended at a similar point, Mitt Romney would have likely won Florida,” the Dolphins’ spokesman, Jotkoff, said on Twitter.

“We were doing 4 points better than we needed to be going into our GOTV effort that was going to start on May 4th,” he said.

From that point, though, the Dolphins campaign would have met grassroots and paid opposition from the likes of auto-dealer Norman Braman, an opponent of tax-subsidized stadiums.

Because the election never fully happened, no one knows what the size of the electorate would be for the May 14 special election.

But recent prior special elections in Miami-Dade indicated turnout would have been less than 20 percent. A 2005 special election for slot machines had a 14.4 percent turnout, the 2011 mayoral recall turnout rate was 17.3 percent and the following mayor’s race was 16.5 percent.

Dolphins’ boosters say this referendum had more attention, which would have increased turnout. But the 2005 slot-machine issue brought the likes of then Gov. Jeb Bush into the fray, raising the profile of the race.

Assuming this election had a 20 percent turnout, it would have left 192,942 voters in play. Of them, the Dolphins needed 52.4 percent support to build up an estimated margin of 9,261 votes to overcome the actual 8,882 vote deficit of faced as of May 3.

Under that scenario, the Dolphins would have won by about 380 votes, or just .15 percent.

If the turnout rate was higher, which many doubt, the Dolphins could have won the outstanding available vote by a relatively lower margin to prevail. But if the turnout rate was lower and more like prior special elections, the Dolphins would have had a tougher and tougher time.

One internal Dolphins poll, a source said, showed the team was prevailing with 52 percent support – right on the cusp.

Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno had polled an early iteration of the Dolphins plan and found opposition was heavy, with about 7 in 10 opposed.

The deal was changed to make it more palatable to voters, but Moreno said people still opposed it. And Tuesday night’s partial election results helped prove it, he said.

“The truth is, this is the number of record. It means a lot. It’s real,” Moreno said.

“What has happened is the Marlins’ stadium deal fundamentally changed people’s outlook toward sports teams and public money,” he said. “This wasn’t the Marlins deal. But it didn’t matter. The political mood has changed.”

Ultimately, the political-science problem posed by the cancelled election is that no projections are certain.

But the clichés certainly are. And elections are all about turnout.

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