As the dust from Tuesday settles and the victory rallies slow down, the November election starts to come into clear focus. What happens now? There are a few facts from Tuesday that the Crist campaign and the Florida Democratic party needs to grapple with.
First, all voters need to understand that this race is going to be one of the ugliest races in Florida history. It will be unbearably close and every single vote is going to matter. It is easy with all the mudslinging to overlook just how important this race is. Florida hasn’t elected a Democratic Governor since 1994. Alex Sink has been the only Democratic cabinet member this century. Democrats have lost 13 of the last 14 races for Governor and Cabinet this century, meaning the party has a 7% success rate in the biggest state races between 2000 and 2010. This election has the chance to at least give Democrats a seat at the table in a way that has not happened in a very long time. Even though Crist will still have a Republican Senate and House, he will at least be able to wield the veto pen. While he will not be able to set policy, he will have the power to negotiate, which has not happened while I have been able to vote in the state of Florida. Neither candidate is going to walk away with this and victory will depend heavily on the campaign strategies chosen by their respective teams. The magnitude of this race should not be forgotten or overlooked at any point.
This race also has broad implications for the future of Democrats well beyond just the next four years. Looking ahead, this seems like a make-it-or-break it moment for Florida Democrats. With few prospects to go against Marco Rubio in 2016 and even fewer lined up to battle for the Governor’s mansion in 2018, this is a pivotal juncture. While we have been debating for the last few months over who is the ‘best’ democrat, it is time to realize that the future of the party in Florida is in serious peril. If Democrats miss this window, there are simple logistical problems getting into this position again in the next decade. If Crist does not win, the path forward is very unclear.
Ahead of November, the voter turnout problem must be addressed. The disastrous 2010 election happened because Democratic voters did not bother to show up and while there are many different factors in this election, the numbers from this primary do not give confidence that things are going to radically change. Despite the record number of early voters that gave hope, the turn-out was lackluster for Democrats all over, with most counties performing in the mid-to-low teens. The big story of the night was the South Florida low turn-out. While Crist is clearly counting on the support of the large South Florida counties, if they are unable to turn-out the vote Crist will have to over perform in other areas. South Florida clearly cannot be counted on in any way for the Democrats based on Tuesday’s vote.
The fact that there were more Republican voters in the governor’s primary than there were for the Democratic governor’s race is particularly troubling. This is partially explained (as Marc Caputo does in the Miami Herald here) that there were many more important Republican state legislative primaries in play, especially the ones surrounding the battle for 2020 leadership, which helped drive Republican turn-out. However, considering that the Republican Governor’s race had no press coverage and no visible campaigning from either of Scott or his opponents for the primary, the fact they had more voters does not bode well for the general election. This is an excellent example of the need for more democratic primaries for down-ballot races; they keep voters motivated, engaged, and tuned-in to the fall election.
Crist is going to have to play smart, as he is going to be outspent tremendously. What he has to do is pretty clear: register as many voters as possible as quickly as possible. Obama won because OFA was on every corner registering voters for months before the election and this is something that has not been addressed from the Crist campaign or the Florida Democratic party. That was the only reason that Obama took Florida twice and yet there has not been a coordinated effort to register voters from either party or candidate and that is going to hurt in the November. Democratic voter registration is behind Republican registrations in every part of the state and complied with the rise in non-party voters, his campaign team has got to get on the ground and find some new voters. Democrats have to over-perform in voter registration and expand the voting base if they are going to compensate for the possibility of low turn-out. This needs to happen soon, as the deadline to register is the first week in October.
One of the ways that Crist can pull ahead is take advantage of the growing absentee ballot trend, which was at record levels all over the state for the primary. The Florida Democratic Party should pay particular attention to the absentee ballot chase, as it could help candidates in several key areas – specifically many races in Tampa Bay and in the Orlando area. While the emphasis on absentee early voting has been growing, it now needs to be kicked into high gear as a way to save money and time. If the FDP is serious about winning, a large portion of the FDP field teams should be devoted to merely getting those absentee ballots in as early as possible. The earlier a voter casts a ballot, the less the campaign will have to spend and this could save valuable time and limited resources. Considering the growing popularity of absentee voting, this will be one of the few places Crist has to pull ahead. This primary was the first election where most people voted before election day rather than on election day and that could change some campaign strategies. Crist will need to capitalize on this if he is going to win.
Crist is going to have to invest time outside his major county strategy in order to compensate for a low-expected turnout and he does not always do this in the most effect way. For example, in Alachua county, Crist came for a short visit at the end of July: he was 45 minutes late and stayed for 10 minutes before jetting off for Tallahassee. He answered no questions, posed with the important people, and did not even stay long enough to set up the fan. It left a bad taste in the air – many had taken time off work to see him and the event ended up being little more than a photo op. Consequently, Nan Rich got 36% of the vote here. While these voters will not choose Rick Scott, they will need to be persuaded to turn out. Crist is going to have to spend some time in North Florida, where Nan Rich did surprisingly high, because he cannot allow those voters to stay home.
Crist lacks the funds to spend much time trying to persuade the mythical undecided voters, if there are any left. While he has abandon any hope in getting some cross-over Republican support, his concentration on major counties could be a weakness. This was clearly shown in Nan Rich’s numbers in rural counties. While Crist got almost 73% overall, Rich received over 40% in Baker, Dixie, Gilchrist, Bay, Glades, Columbia, Franklin, Bradford, Washington, Santa Rosa, Lafayette, Union, Gulf, Hardee, Holmes, Jackson, Lafayette, Okaloosa, Suwannee, Taylor, and Walton counties and even won in Putnam and Calhoun counties. While there are not many enough Democratic voters in these counties for Crist to spend much time in, the fact that Nan snagged these mostly conservative counties is an oddity. If turnout is going to be a problem, he will have come up with some strategy to bring in these voters into the fold in order to compensate for turn-out concerns in other parts of the state. The campaign is stuck between a rock and a hard place because while he does not want to get stuck using scarce resources on rural votes, he cannot afford to lose them all. While Broward and Palm Beach cannot be counted on, voters in North Florida vote more reliably, irrespective of circumstance. While getting folks to vote in Southeast Florida where interest in state politics is lower, many in rural Florida will always cast a ballot in off-year elections.
(On a side-note, there is a great discussion about the oddities in North Florida voting patterns on Matt Isbell’s blog, along with a lot of pretty maps that breakdown patterns over time. It will not have much relevance moving forward because Crist is going to ignore these counties, but for the sake of further information, it is a good read. As we have discussed many times on this blog, Democrats are going to have to find a way to draw in rural voters once again if they are ever going to make a move toward the leadership in this state. A 67 county not a 12 county strategy is needed.)
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how this election plays out. Make no mistake, this one will be one for the history books. Not only will it be studied in campaign management and messaging case studies, but we are at a turning point in Florida history. This could change the course for Democrats in Florida, if they organize, register voters, and get those voters to vote before Nov 4th.