As many of you might know, I have been a vocal critic of Democratic campaign strategy in North Florida for some time. There are three main reasons why I have been opposed to this strategy. First, targeting North Florida is a logistical nightmare. Unlike the nice and tidy urban or suburban neighborhoods of Florida’s major cities, rural Florida is scarcely populated and reaching voters in this region is much more difficult. Secondly, the mathematics just do not add up, as the population centers in Central and South Florida vastly outnumber voters in North Florida. Many consultants and strategists who work with Florida Democrats have decided to push a line about targeting and winning votes in North Florida.
The third reason that I have opposed this strategy is because convincing voters to vote Democratic in North Florida is a hard task to accomplish. I have outlined a number of reasons for this in an article “So, Democrats, You Want to Win North Florida?” on The Political Hurricane. But even this only tells part of the story and not the entire picture. Therefore, in this article, I wish to expand this debate to a new level. Up to this point I have mostly made “common sense” points regarding North Florida strategy. Now, it is time to look those who have examined voting behavior in not just the United States, but other countries as well.
As I said in the article that I linked above, I do feel that Florida Democrats can have an impact in North Florida. The only problem is that they are using the wrong issues to do that. I have stressed that Democrats should concentrate more on liberal economic and education issues in North Florida and move away from social issues and economic conservatism. While I stated the reasons why I feel that this is the path that Florida Democrats should take (and I will not repeat these point as there are too many and they are clearly defined in the link above) there are other reasons that fall in line with empirical studies on voting behavior that confirm these reasons, but in a totally different way.
While studies on voting behavior have been going on for nearly 90 years, one of the major breakthroughs when it comes to studying this phenomenon was the study Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet which examined the voting behavior of people in Erie County, Ohio in the 1940 presidential election. Their study discovered numerous finding, but for the sake of this article, we are going to focus on some of the major forces that campaigns used to win election. We are going to focus on the idea of the Activation Effect, the Reinforcement Effect and the Conversion Effect.
Before we get into the meat and bones of why this applies to North Florida, we need to examine some of their findings, as well as define the concepts mentioned above. The findings that Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet discovered was that people of certain socio-economic classes usually stick together when it comes to vote choice. Therefore, if you were a rural, protestant farmer, you would more than likely vote Republican. If you were an urban, Catholic laborer, you would more likely vote Democratic. But people who have socio-economic indicators which do not traditionally conform to each other, such as a rich Catholic businessman, then they would be identified as “cross-pressure” voters. According to the authors, these voters are less likely to be interested in the campaign as they have conflicting values. They also tend to look at political parties being similar instead of different, which also lead to lower interest in campaigns.
But for the sake of this discussion, it can be assumed that most voters in North Florida do not fall in this cross-pressure group, as many of them are of the same religious, economic and social background. Still, in order to discuss the issue further, it is important to understand the concept behind the findings of Lazarsfeld.
First, let’s look at Activation Effect. In their findings, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues classified 28% of voters as “crystalizers”, who are voters that went from no vote intention to a defined vote intention. For example, a voter going into the 1940 election with no idea regarding their vote choice in May ended up with a defined vote choice in November, voting for either Wilkie or Roosevelt. Most voters within this group usually fit nicely into a certain socio-economic status and were not cross-pressure voters. This means that their socio-economic status somewhat predetermines their voting intentions. The Activation Effect is the process where political parties work to affirm the vote choice of these voters. Once “activation” begins, the voter then makes a vote decision on that activation. Because of preset socio-economic indicators, the voter will usually drift toward the party that falls in line with these indicators. Thus, rural voters who are protestant are more likely to be Republican, which we are seeing in the case of North Florida today.
The next process is the Reinforcement Effect. In their Ohio study, Lazarsfeld’s group noticed there was a group of voters called “waverers”, who initially had a vote choice early in the campaign, but then drifted away from that vote choice sometime during the campaign. Eventually at the end of the campaign the voter would return to their original vote choice. With these voters, the process of reinforcement took place which, as the name indicates, reinforced the initial vote choice of the voter which results in the voter coming back to the party. Therefore, a Democratic campaign might remind waverers about why they need to vote Democratic, or not vote Republican, and bring them back to the fold.
The last process is the Conversion Effect. Lazarsfeld identifies another group of voters called “party changers”. This group was, by far, smaller than the crystalizers and the waverers (only 8% of their Erie County study). These party changers had an initial vote choice for one party, but their final vote choice switched to the opposite party. Some vote changers made a clean switch from one to the other, but most fell into the “don’t know” category sometime in the middle of the campaign and then voted for the opposing party on Election Day. It should be noted that Lazarsfeld states that those who actually go through the process of making a switch rarely come back. So, if someone intended to vote Democratic early in a campaign and switched to Republican at the midway point, the likelihood of them coming back to the Democratic side was very slim.
The Conversion Effect, as you would expect, converted voters from one party to another. This happened in two ways. First, someone in a certain socio-economic status initially misidentified themselves and eventually found their way back to the party which fits that status. Second, cross-pressure voters, who have more room to move from party to party, were the ones most likely to be effected by the Conversion Effect. As we already mentioned earlier, it can be argued that most North Florida voters do not fall under the classification of cross-pressure voters, so the Conversion Effect might not apply in North Florida as much as activation or reinforcement.
Now that we have the definitions out of the way, let’s look specifically at North Florida and the strategy that Democrats have been employing in the region. The thought among Florida Democratic strategists is that Democrats should concentrate on moving toward either moderate of conservative stances on issues in order to win the region. But this in itself is a major flaw that many within Democratic circles have not even examined or tested on a skin-deep level.
First, let’s look at moderation on social issues. Let’s say that the Democrats start moving toward the right on these issues. Obviously, most of the people in North Florida take a very conservative stance on abortion, gay marriage and the gun issue. While moving right on abortion hasn’t been an issue for the party, and to some extent gay marriage, the gun issue is an entirely different story. Those touting the North Florida strategy proudly claim that the Democrats need to move to the right on guns.
Alright, let’s say that Florida Democrats do move to the right on this issue. Two major faults happen which actually helps Republicans. First, if the Florida Democrats “activate” the issue of gun control and bring it to the forefront, this tactic will help crystalize voters with no vote intention early in the campaign to not vote Democratic, but to vote Republican. The reason this is the case is that when it comes to the gun issue, those on the right see the Republican Party as strong on the issue. Therefore, if Florida Democrats want to make guns an issue, even if they are taking a moderated view on the issue, they are inadvertently giving Republicans a gift and activating voters who hold Republican socio-economic characteristics.
The second fault that can be exposed actually comes from a study of the 1980 Federal election in Canada. In “Partisanship, Voting Behavior, and Election Outcomes in Canada”, written by Lawrence LeDuc, Harold Clarke, Jane Jenson and Jon Pammett, the authors state that partisan identifications were either durable or flexible. Durable means that a person is a die-hard partisan. Flexible means that people change their partisanship from election to election. Even though I personally feel that North Florida is starting to become a solid Republican region with a few Democratic enclaves, those supporting the North Florida strategy will say that it is a flexible partisan region. Since we are examining their arguments, let’s then state for this article that North Florida is indeed flexible.
So, back to gun control and North Florida. In their findings, LeDuc and his colleagues said that two criteria must be met in order for an issue to be an influence on flexible partisans. First, it must be a salient issue. Let’s say that is it, so no debate there. Second, “parties must be perceived by the voter as assuming different positions with regard to that issue” (LeDuc et al. 1980, 408). Here is where the fatal flaw comes with most of those supporting the North Florida strategy. By not having a view on gun control that is clearly defined from the Republican view, the Democrats make it a non-issue. But not only do they make it a non-issue for flexible partisans, but they make it an activating or reinforcing issue for the Republicans who have predispositions regarding socio-economic status. Therefore, Florida Democrats moving to the right on gun control is a lose-lose situation.
This also is the case for other issues as well. Conservative Democrat Barney Bishop has argued that Florida Democrats need to start being more like Republicans when it comes to economic issues. Again, if there is no perceived difference by the parties regarding economics, the move by the Democrats to move to the right on economic issues not only is ineffective in gaining flexible partisans, but has the same activation and reinforcement effects of the gun control debate.
So, does this mean that North Florida is lost for Democrats? Somewhat, but there is a ray of hope. As I mentioned in my previous article, Democrats need to focus on liberal economic and education issues. Not only do these issues show a clear division between the parties, which is important in gaining the support of flexible voters, but they can be used at activators, reinforcers or possibly even converters . The education issue, in particular, could play strong in the region. And if education issues fall in line with rural values, then there could be a swing.
But even with this, most of the voters in North Florida fall within the socio-economic status which coincides with Republicanism, thus activation and reinforcement isn’t a tool that would be useful to Democrats. Instead, longer term Conversion Effect would be the mostly feasible option for Democrats. But even that is weak. Therefore, the Florida Democrats targeting North Florida illogical at best.
Finally, it should be mentioned that voters usually have defined views on the issues. Even if they call themselves “moderate”, they lean either one way of the other on an issue. Therefore, in the case of North Florida, voters already have their mind set on the gun issue and will not change their views. This is not only argued by Lazarsfeld, who say “the open-minded voters who make a sincere attempt to weigh the issues and the candidates dispassionately for the good of the country as a whole exist mainly in deferential campaign propaganda, in textbooks on civics, in the movies, and in the minds of some political idealists. In real life, they are few indeed” (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944, 100), but most other research on voting behavior come to the same conclusion. Therefore, Florida Democrats need to realize that not only will they not change the mind of the voters, but they cannot change the party to the mind of the voters, as both will have an adverse effect.
In closing, I think one important aspect regarding this article should be noted. Not once during this article did I bring up the idea of targeting South or Central Florida. While there are tons of logical reason for targeting these areas instead of North Florida, I wanted to keep this article’s entire context within the political demographics of North Florida itself. I feel that the political climate in North Florida alone is not compatible with Democratic Party electoral goals. And when the South and Central Florida targeting debate in brought into the fold, the North Florida strategy is even less logical. So, for the sake of this argument, it was important to leave out South and Central Florida, so that the focus of targeting North Florida on its own merit can be proven illogical.