With buzz around the state focusing on Governor Charlie Crist and his Gubernatorial prospects, we once again hear from different quarters that Crist needs to be nominated because “he can win,” and that the only current announced Democratic candidate Senator Nan Rich is “unelectable.” These theories are based on dated and aged reasoning that have little or no relevance in today’s political landscape. Through the years, polling data on specific candidates done 18 months before an election almost always proves to be reversible and should not be used as hard guidelines on what candidate is “electable” or on whom partisans should endorse and support.
Modern elections in Florida and in fact nationally are turnout wars between competing ideologies. The 24-hour news cycle fed by cable news and social media has ensured that the former wild swings in the electorate are no longer a regular occurrence. As a result ticket-splitting has also grown less common than anytime since before the New Deal and voters, even so-called and self-proclaimed moderates are hardened in their voting patterns. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s when many people split their tickets in Florida and swung from party to party depending on the candidates and issues of the day, the 2000s have witnessed hardened voting patterns and the efforts of the Democrats to nominate what I call ” Diet Republicans” fall flat on its face. A “Diet Republican” is a Democratic version of the “me too Republicans” of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Those Republicans were essentially closeted Democrats who accepted the New Deal, and supported a lot of the more liberal Democratic social agenda.
These Republicans were like many Florida Democrats so motivated by status and access that they simply accepted the Democratic majorities in Congress without fighting a battle on issues. Today some Washington media types harken back to this era of “civility” but the reality was that the Democrats grew so arrogant and comfortable in power while the Republicans were so complacent in the minority that we got Vietnam and 58,000 dead Americans, among other problems that were not addressed in that era. Those who stood apart on either side of the aisle were ostracized. The “Watergate babies,” a group of liberal Democrats elected in 1974 shook up Congress for the better, and since we have had vibrant and constructive debate on issues.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan turned the GOP irrevocably to the right after almost snatching the nomination in 1976 from the centrist Gerald Ford (as Republican Minority Leader in the House, Ford had been so motivated by peaceful accommodation and co-existence with the Democratic majority that his party couldn’t take advantage of the Nixon landslide in 1972, not dis-similar from some of the traits we see in today’s Florida Democratic legislative leadership whenever the Democrats should have a coattail election here.) Reagan governed from the right while clearly delineating the differences between the two parties. Young voters were motivated to become Republicans and the “Reagan Revolution” culminated with the GOP capturing Congress in 1994 with fire-breathing activist type conservatives running across the country against “moderate” Democrats. Since that election, it is has become clearer and clearer that voters will vote for something rather than for nothing, so when conservatives articulate vision for the future (albeit a disturbing one) and Democrats try and straddle the fence, Democrats lose. President Obama’s clear annunciation of who he was and what he stood for put the Republicans on the defensive and he won Florida twice.
Florida Elections being turnout wars has become more and more obvious over the past decade. Given this reality, in 2014 Florida Democrats need to react and embrace the types of issues that have motivated activists to work hard and turn out to vote for national candidates. In 2002, and 2010 traditionally liberal southeast Floridians either stayed home or did not work as enthusiastically to turn out the vote as they did in 2000, 2006, 2008, and 2012 which were good Democratic years. The Republican success of 2002, 2004 and 2010 was largely due to a spike in turnout and reconnection with the party’s base voters.
Florida’s Democrats have been wrong so many times about “swing” voters. We were told in 1998 to nominate Rick Dantzler because Buddy MacKay was too liberal. In 2002, we were told that Buddy MacKay’s liberalism gave us Jeb Bush and we needed to nominate a moderate. Janet Reno, who generated enthusiasm among the most activists was rejected for the traditional institutional Democrat, the late Bill McBride. What ensued was a Republican landslide. In 2004 Betty Castor occupied the middle ground against Mel Martinez who, despite a moderate record as Orange County Chairman (County Mayor), decided to run to the hard right. Castor lost. In 2010 moderate Alex Sink, the wife of McBride, questioned President Obama’s Health Care plan, positioned herself to the right of Governor Charlie Crist on insurance and banking and tried to appeal to “swing voters” against a pathetically weak GOP nominee in Rick Scott. Sink, like McBride and Castor, was defeated.
The direct contrast to this is the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections when Barack Obama won the state running on one of the most liberal platforms in history against Republicans who tried to run to the middle and quite honestly alienated large segments of the GOP base. Democrats who continue to advocate a more moderate approach to issues do not understand Florida’s electorate. While moderation may work in suburbs of large Northern and Midwestern cities, or in states where the electorate is overwhelmingly conservative, Florida’s potential Democratic electorate is often concerned about issues such as environmental protection, gun control, and other social issues. The days when Florida voters were obsessed with crime and taxes are long gone, but some Democrats seem to believe the way back to a majority status in the state is to embrace yesterday’s issues. and yesterday’s thinking.
Florida’s Democrats could advocate a certain brand of economic populism that would appeal to the base of the party while encouraging other Democratically-inclined voters to turn out. But what we have witnessed instead is a party that has promoted candidates tied to the insurance industry, and those who oppose strong environmental regulations. Bill Clinton won Florida in 1996 by running aggressively on gun control and environmental protection. Al Gore’s populist economic message resonated with Florida voters in 2000, and Barack Obama, perceived to be a hard-core liberal, carried the state in 2008 and 2012.
Democrats should understand that the election results in 2012 prove one thing: politics has changed irrevocably and firing up a party’s base is now far more important than appealing to theoretical “swing” voters. Part of the reason “swing” voters played such a role in the 1990s, in retrospect was because voter turnout was significantly lower than it had been in the 1960s and lower than it is today. The reality is that moderate/swing voters are minimal in numbers and efforts to appeal to them are offset by losing potential voters or workers on the left. The Democrats have botched up repeatedly over the past decade in trying to execute a flawed and foolhardy strategy. As the field for 2014 statewide elections begins to form, let us hope Florida’s Democrats remember the lessons of recent history and understand why Florida performs so well for national Democrats.