For decades from the 1960s up to the mid 1990s, the political strategy for both parties has been to find a moderate candidates that can appeal both sides of the aisle. This began to fade with Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the house in 1994 and the rise of hyper-partisanship, yet the polarization has taken some time to trickle down to the state and local level. With the surge of the tea party however, the moderate politician has all become extinct. With the data targeting of modern campaigns, the swing vote has diminished and this middle ground to attract undecided voters has almost vanished as elections have become centered on getting out the base and getting them to the polls. There is even discussion that the ‘undecided’ voter does not exist at all and however low the numbers, the fact stands that this middle ground is slowly becoming politically irrelevant because it is becoming such a small percentage of voters. With the rise in popularity of far-left and far-right candidates, the changing political landscape has left behind many of these moderate politicians.
This is especially true in Florida. Jeb Bush brought in a new wave of partisanship to the state with his drive toward privatization and many have jumped ship as the Tea Party rose to power and dragged the middle further to the right. For years previous, the ideology has been to run candidates from the middle of the road – Alex Sink, Bill McBride, even Charlie Crist Republican version was very much seen as a middle of the road candidates and were chosen for their broad-based appeal. However, the popularity of this has been fading and with the election of Rick Scott, an undeniable product of the hard-right. While there is a serious question that this strategy ever actually worked for Democrats, Republicans have capitalized on the shift to the right and have left the middle almost entirely and still managed to dominate.
Crist is a product of the middle. He has always relied on the middle ground to find support from his early days in politics. While he was never a radical Republican, he was never the ideologue for anything else either. He was from St. Petersburg, which has always been a fairly moderate to liberal place, and never had to rely on strong support from the fringes of politics and instead carved out a niche in the blue area for a Republican to thrive. Crist’s election to the Senate in 1992 knocked off a long-time Democratic favorite in Helen Gordon Davis and ended the Democratic control of the Florida State Senate that the party has never regained. Although a popular Senator, Crist was always made unconventional decisions and that was part of his appeal. He ran against Senator Bob Graham in 1998 in a long-shot chance, but gained state-wide name recognition. His victory in two state constitutional offices afterwards always depended on middle of the road voters instead of party loyalty.
However, in these last few weeks, Crist is making headlines for dropping in the polls and getting off to a shaky start overall this summer. Even though the release of his first television ad and several mistakes by Scott keep the game competitive, the perception is still that he is faltering. Poll numbers are surely going to vacillate back and forth between now and November, this perception is making a lot of people nervous and considering he is still trying to win over Democrats to his side, this uneasiness does not set well with many. Although he is going to easily triumph over Nan Rich in the primary, it does seem like he is having some trouble fitting into this new role as a Democratic candidate for governor. And instead of blaming his problems with the base, perhaps his problem is simply with the vanishing moderate voter.
The first ideas of Charlie Crist running as a Democrat brought one thing to mind: he would appeal to Republicans and assuredly knock of Rick Scott. That was why the idea of him was tolerated. He was supposed to appeal to the moderate Republican base and counteract some of Scott’s deep pockets. Republican appeal was a big part of the Crist selling-points. He was a popular Republican governor who won handily in 2006 after winning two other state-wide elections as a Republican (for Education Commissioner back when it was an elected position and then Attorney General). Surely the assumption that he will carve out some Republican votes will indeed come true, however, it looks like the numbers are quickly fading and he is going to have to depend more and more on the Democratic base to come out and vote. Now it looks like the cleavage he is trying to create in the Republican party is getting thinner and thinner. While undoubtedly he will gather some Republican support, the initial estimates seemed to have diminished. With these shrinking numbers, Crist’s choices get more limited. Wide targeting costs more money, but has bigger payoffs (see Rick Scott’s television blitz which got him tied in the polls). Targeted voting is problematic because of the limited wedge issues that Crist can use – the choices of equal pay, minimum wage, and education are good, but he is going to need more to create more contrast. Most of Florida has changed their minds about gay marriage, so he could hammer on Scott all day but with little political gain. Rick Scott cannot attack the conservative things that Crist did without pointing out his own record, but the vice versa is also true. Are there enough issues to contrast the two to motivate voters? That will depend on elusive undecided voter.
The larger question that the Crist candidacy brings is if he can bring back the middle ground and re-define the moderate candidate. And while this is a huge task, the reality is that this is exactly why he may actually stand a chance. As much as the Republican establishment seems to be getting behind Scott, he is a radical right-winger on every count. There is nothing about the middle about him. And for Crist to pull this off, he does not need to be a progressive crusader – just enough to maintain the democratic base, who have little choice but to support him. The Florida Democratic Party has long been a failing brand and Crist is not going to be the one to resurrect it, however, he may carve out some middle ground to play with that could benefit Democrats for years to come. However, in order to do this he is going to have to take some conservative stances. And find that middle ground. In all reality, he should call on some national Republican friends to come and campaign – long-term friend John McCain would be a most interesting choice. He must use his Republican connections because in all reality, the Democrats do not have the resources to win alone. Crist has walked a careful line with the FDP, but even the most loyal Dem must realize that compromises are going to have to be made.
Rick Scott has precious little going for him; between the Department of Corrections killing repeatedly covering up inmate deaths and the Department of Children and Families loosing children who somehow then turn up dead, his administration is plagued with scandal. However, the simple fact that inmates and children cannot vote makes them easy to spin and cover up. Rick Scott’s out-of-state campaign team are champions of spin and they are not going to take it easy anytime soon and they will keep hammering until November. (Not to mention the ridiculous ‘We’re not buying it’ theme of the Republican attacks, which seem to add an ironic capitalist twist to the rhetoric going on – as if Floridians have money to buy a Governor? Really?)
Florida Democrats need to take a hard look in the mirror at the reasons why they got stuck with Charlie Crist. If progressives in Florida want progressive candidates to win state-wide offices, they are going to have to learn to organize, fund raise, and run effective state-wide campaigns. Until that day comes, they are going to have to settle for creatures such as Charlie Crist. The irony that after years of failing to organize and build power structures in local communities, a handful of activists have decided to hold out and reject Crist, which will ultimately harm future chances to elect a Progressive governor. Progressives have to remember that we are not the majority in the state – not by a long shot. We haven’t had a Democratic governor elected since 1994. There are kids preparing to go to enter their senior year of High School today who have never known a Florida with a Democratic governor. Beggars cannot be choosers and no matter how much Democrats remember Republican Charlie, there is still value to him running as a Democrat.
Charlie Crist is not a Progressive. And he doesn’t need to be to win. And while progressives might be upset, if he manages to discover a forgotten moderate voting base in Florida that still should be celebrated as a win because that could have lasting impacts on the Florida political landscape that will benefit Democrats and the state in the long-run.