With buzz around the state focusing on Governor Charlie Crist’s “sinking” poll numbers and a supposed Rick Scott “surge,” we once again hear from different quarters that Crist and the Democratic ticket need to replicate the Alex Sink playbook and chase mythical swing voters. Many Democratic voters have been sold on the need to nominate Crist because he can win, and that the Senator Nan Rich was “unelectable.” While Nan Rich has proven to be unelectable because of the type of campaign she has run, her ideology and strong advocacy on issues had nothing to do with her failure to coalesce more support in advance of Tuesday’s primary.
Barring something resembling the apocalypse, Crist will be nominated on Tuesday by Florida Democrats. Then on Wednesday we will be subjected to analysis that Crist needs to run to the middle and that he is currently positioned “out of the mainstream.” Some will claim Crist’s views on economic issues, the insurance industry and the environment are “not where Floridians are” and that he needs to stop running as an economic populist. Many who float these theories will in fact be Democrats. Some of them will be paid consultants to campaigns. They are almost universally wrong in the way they are thinking about the 2014 campaign.
Moderate people do exist. I myself have many moderate positions on the issues. But voters tend to cast ballot not based on an average of where a candidate sits on ten issues, but on one or two issues that matter the most to them. On these issues, voters are either conservatives or progressives. Those who turn out especially in lower turnout elections do so not because they seek good or consensus-oriented government, but because they care deeply about one or two issues.
Another misconception is that independent voters are moderates. Studies have shown about 1/3 of NPAs are hard-right conservatives, 1/3 are hard-left liberals and just 1/3 sit in the middle.
Modern midterm and even Presidential elections in Florida 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 any time 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 these voters 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 in Florida 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 Democratic operatives — 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. Conservatives who had strongly held views were called radical. Liberals were likened to Communists. 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.
Do we need moderate elected officials? Yes we do, as we need a strong core of middle-of-the-road officials in both parties to help shape and frame issues in legislative bodies. But do we need statewide candidates that campaign as “moderates?” I don’t believe we do. I would argue the Florida legislature is not as conservative as many Democrats claim but when the members of the majority party go back home, they all claim to be arch-conservatives because Republicans know how to win elections and how to motivate the base. Many harbor statewide ambition and thus play to the base of the party whose nomination they must win and whose voters must turn out for them to be elected. Democrats should follow a similar script.
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.) President 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. Charlie Crist no doubt has noted this and will do the same.
Florida elections as turnout wars has become more and more obvious over the past decade. Given this reality, in the fall of 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.
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. This ideology is perhaps perfectly suited to Charlie Crist. But what we have witnessed instead in the past 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 hardcore liberal, carried the state in 2008 and 2012. I firmly believe Charlie Crist can connect with the party’s progressive base and those who chose not to turn out to vote for Alex Sink by emphasizing the populist stands he already holds on economic and environmental issues. As ironic as it sounds, Charlie Crist the former Republican Governor could run the most Democratic campaign for state’s top office in the General Election since 1998.
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 activists on the left. The Democrats have botched this repeatedly over the past decade in trying to execute a flawed strategy at the state level.
I remain confident that if Charlie Crist follows the Obama playbook and emphasizes his populist stands he will return to the Governor’s Mansion. Crist’s poll numbers should not frighten anybody if the Democrats work the base properly.