By Dr. Rachel Sutz Pienta
The annual fundraising event formerly known as the Florida Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner, now re-branded as Leadership Blue, was this past Saturday night. Throughout the weekend, discussions of Democratic voter turnout in off election years dominated workshops and earned a mention from former President Bill Clinton during the dinner program. The “explainer-in-chief” exhorted the 1600 plus assembled Democrats to “concentrate” – like the orange juice in the frozen food aisle, apropos for Florida.
Back in Wakulla, the small county where I serve as local party chair, I am left wondering how best to “concentrate” our electoral efforts in 2014. My county is defined as small because it has less than 30,000 registered Democrats. Of course, my county would be defined as small outside the metrics used by the Democratic Party. There are less than 32,000 residents in the entire county. Of 18,616 voters, 9,535 are registered Democrats. In 2012, 5,175 votes were cast for President Obama – only 35.21 percent of the votes cast in Wakulla County.
In 2012, former State Senator Al Lawson won 5,334 votes in Wakulla – a scant 159 votes more than President Obama. In 2010, incumbent Allen Boyd lost his seat to a funeral home director from Bay County – earning only 4,260 votes from Wakulla voters in the general election.
Now, it is 2014 and Gwen Graham is the Democratic nominee for Congressional District 2. Ms. Graham and her staff are fond of saying that she is campaigning in 14 counties. Yes, that is right, she has to campaign in 14 counties. Most of those counties are small by anyone’s definition. Every vote cast in those counties will be hard won and each vote will matter in the small county math that makes or breaks this sprawling, mostly rural district.
This is Florida. Each vote cast will matter. Think about it. In fact, concentrate – just for a moment. Democrats in this state should grasp this concept by now.
In the 14 years since the pivotal 2000 presidential election, Democrats have seen election after election be lost due to a failure to turn out the Democratic vote. A decade after that pivotal election, Florida Democrats would field a full slate of experienced public officials at the top of the ticket. CFO Alex Sink would vie for the Governor’s mansion with Rod Smith as her running mate. Well-credentialed Democrats Loranne Ausley, Dan Gelber and Scott Maddox were slated for the Cabinet seats.
Election night in 2010 was heartbreaking for Florida Democrats.
During a League of Women Voters lunchtime post-election analysis presented by Leon Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho and Florida State University professor Lance DeHaven-Smith, the two men discussed the 100,000 votes that could have made a difference to Democrats. Their focus was on questionable votes that may or may not have been cast for Alex Sink. However, since that time, further analysis has shed light on the 100,000 Democratic voters who just did not show up. If the voters who voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 were to show up and cast a vote for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2014 – the tide of electoral history in Florida would be reversed after years of Republican domination in Tallahassee.
Where would those 100,000 votes come from? Are those votes picked up in the mostly blue, Democratic leaning urban areas in Florida? Or, might the strategy be to pick up a few hundred votes in each of the small counties outside those blue urban population centers?
Consider the election results for Congressional District 2 in 2012.
The largest Democratic county in CD2 is Leon. 100,325 of the 187,045 registered voters in this county are Democrats. See the figure below to see how that worked out for the Congressional race in 2012:
About 2,000 fewer voters cast votes for the Democratic candidate for Congress than were cast by Democrats to re-elect President Obama.
Consider how many votes were cast for Allen Boyd in 2010 in Leon – about 54,000 votes – 30,000 less votes than in 2012.
Comparing Leon to a small county like Wakulla is useful as an illustration of the math needed to win in Congressional District 2. Al Lawson lost by 18, 222 votes in 2012.
One might argue that improving the voter turnout in Leon County is the key to winning back this seat for the Democrats. I would argue that we cannot rely solely on moving the electoral needle in a county like Leon. Leon has a high voter turnout in any election year. While their turnout is lower in off years, as it is everywhere, it is still higher than most other counties. If a county that is comprised of liberal college professors and state workers who tend to fare better when Democrats hold the reins cannot be inspired to turn out in an off year, what is a Democratic field operative to do?
If you are veteran Obama field operative Jenn Whitcomb, you probably plan a comprehensive field program in all 14 counties. President Obama did better than expected in CD2 in 2012 and most experts on field operations across the nation would say that Whitcomb’s ability to leverage resources and field staff across a sprawling territory made a critical difference.
All signs point to the 2014 CD2 field plan being more comprehensive and inclusive than what was in place for the 2012 presidential election. Plus, Jenn Whitcomb is in place, working in now familiar territory.
As I continued to, as President Clinton advised, “concentrate”, I decided to check my take on the electoral landscape with someone who closely follows voter turnout trends in this area. Matt Isbell, a veteran of several North Florida campaigns, is working in South Florida this campaign cycle but offered me some insights based on his prior analysis of the 2012 Congressional race.
Isbell concurred, telling me that
“It is all about the margins. In 2012, the CD2 vote for Al Lawson played out as follows: He got a huge margin out of Leon.
That margin was erased by Bay, which came in heavy for Southerland. The raw vote margin out of Bay was equal to Leon’s, despite Leon being larger in population. So based on those two counties, Lawson and Southerland were near tied, with a slight edge to Southerland
Then Gadsden comes in strong for Lawson, and he is up by a few thousand.
Then it all falls apart. Jefferson splits even and all the other rural counties go strong for Southerland. Lawson’s margin from Gadsden is quickly erased and he loses by almost 20,000 votes.”
Isbell’s analysis aligned with my thinking – that picking up votes in counties like Jackson and Wakulla would be key to a victory, whether in the governor’s race or for CD2.
A phone call from a Panacea business owner briefly interrupted my concentration on voter turnout. The call turned out to be just what I needed to get back on track. The business owner, daughter of a longtime Wakulla fishing family, wanted to tell me that residents of this coastal community had soured on Congressman Southerland. She informed me that she was sure personal visits with Gwen Graham could go a long way toward earning those historically red-leaning votes.
Thinking about candidate face-time in a small community like unincorporated Panacea made me consider the ground game in Jackson County. A message to County Commissioner Jeremy Branch confirmed what I thought might be the case. His response:
“Unlike Calhoun, Gulf, Franklin, Taylor, etc., Jackson has 10 municipalities. And things are very different and very territorial. Graceville gets very offended if you only campaign in Marianna. Same for Sneads….In Jackson, you win by winning Malone, Bascom, Cottondale, Sneads, Shady Grove, Cypress, etc., not just Marianna.”
What does this all mean for Wakulla County? It means opening a field office and staying in close contact with Wakulla County voters. It also means convincing out of county donors that investing in a rural county like Wakulla will pay off in Democratic wins in November.
Dr. Rachel Sutz Pienta is the Secretary of the Small County Coalition, Wakulla DEC Chair as well as Wakulla’s State Committeewoman. She is the Former Communications Chair and former 2nd vice president of the DWCF. She is currently appointed to the FDP Campaign Committee by State Chair Allison Tant. Dr. Pienta speaks and writes frequently on public policy issues. In 2011, her writing on women and political advocacy was featured in the edited collection The 21st Century Motherhood Movement: Mothers Speak Out on Why We Need to Change the World and How to Do It. In 2012, she co-wrote a book chapter on science and gender in textbooks related to STEM education. Her Women’s Studies book for the McGraw Hill Taking Sides series was published in August 2013. In 2011, she was honored by the Tallahassee Democrat as one of “25 Women You Need to Know”. In 2012, the Tallahassee Network of Young Professionals honored Dr. Pienta as a “Golden A.C.E.” in Higher Education for her “authentic community engagement”.
Great article, Rachel. You can’t ignore the small counties, call them Red Zones, and forget about them. My 24,000 Democrats can make a difference. Thanks for pointing that out.