Charlie Crist Must Work Rural and Smaller Counties to Win

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.

31 comments

  1. Steve Ellman · · Reply

    Terrific analysis. Not sure you’re right about the rural counties and the significance of the Rich percentages there (the latter can be read many ways). Doesn’t it make more sense to work the hustings that have the votes? And where the organization is already strong, that is, SoFL?
    In any case…Where to I sign up?

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  2. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    Excellent article Katy! Rural voters are just wanting to be touched by the democrats. Alex Sink did this and now Nan Rich did.

    By contrast, Obama and Crist have shown nothing but contempt for these folks. They’ve ignored them and at the same time reduced the democrats to a party that is competitive in only a handful of Florida counties.

    Not long ago democrats carried rural Florida and elected most of its legislators. In 2012 republican won every rural state house seat for the first time ever and Obama lost every rural county except Gadsden which is majority black.

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    1. NAN Rich got over 200K votes. THAT would be the margin of difference in the general.. Instead of ignoring these 200+K voters and failing to show up respecting us in the primary process, CC should have seen that we would not come like automatons. Being a Democrat does NOT mean we follow what the state apparatus decrees. Unless they listen to why we voted for NAN RICH and address the issues the general may not that easy.

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      1. No, that’s Republican automatons who blindly obey the party line and show up. Stop with the hand wringing–Dems knew Crist was going to prevail, and there was little motivation to vote in the primary. This is not brain surgery! It seems the worse the kook Repubs perform in Tally, the more the uneducated rural and Repub voters vote for them! It is illogical, but this is an illogical party. Yes, the Dems’ job will be to get out the vote. Helping that along should be the widespread enmity for Scott and his war on the middle class in FL. The racism and just devastating negativism of the TeaCrazies has affected the vote in FL and elsewhere for the last 3 cycles. The result has been the classic Repub shoot-self-in-foot. We women voters need to resolve to vote in unity and get Scott out of our state government. Can we do that ladies?

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  3. Excellent analysis.

    The arrogance of the Crist team running a campaign from Fort Lauderdale a geographically isolated place and Saint Petersburg on the if a huge metropolitan area ensures lack of time and effort among the majority of counties. Crist should be based in Tallahassee around the counties that have a greater percentage of democratic registered voters than any of the urban counties.

    Obama cost is north Florida for a time. Crist could lose it for a generation. Obama won 12 counties. Romney 55. Yet Crist follows the Obama play book? How does that make any sense!!!

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    1. Obama also won the state twice with that strategy. Sink employed a strategy for moderate voters and rural areas and lost. Crist who has zero convictions has simply adopted the winning strategy that requires repositioning his ideology to the left.

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  4. Democratic Guy · · Reply

    This article nails it. The current emphasis on only a few counties is flawed and allows for no margin for error.

    Crist needs to spend a week in the panhandle and a week in rural areas in the center of the state. Use Gainesville and Tallahassee as bases.

    No doubt Broward County elites and Miami types will whine but by demanding the attention the way they have has ruined the electoral coalition for Democrats and made it impossible to win statewide.

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    1. Tom Bryson · · Reply

      Provincialism forever!

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  5. I understand the sentiments but spending time in areas that don’t produce many raw votes in a two month election isn’t logical.

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    1. In other words, just write off rural counties as not worth the effort…..this may be “smart strategy” but it is not just or moral. It is a loud voice saying, ” I don’t give a damn about you.” I am getting so tired of “do anything to win” politics in both parties. What happened to “serve the people?”

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  6. I think CC has to go where the votes are. Run up the score in SoFlo, win the I-4 corridor and make some effort to our rural Dems and I think we will be ok. I agree that our GOTV is crucial but if the prospect of 4 more years of Rick Scott isn’t enough to get every democrat to early vote or VBM or show up on Election Day then I don’t know what else we can do.

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    1. Vote by mail, order your absentee ballot now! No lines, no discrimination, no problem with picture IDs. The Republicans have erected many fences to try to reduce the vote, let’s get smart and get our votes in early. Stop the fussing over “city vs. rural”; this is a very diverse state with many interest groups who have been shat upon by Scott and his thugs. Let’s get out the elderly voters, help them order a mail in ballot, or drive them to the polls early! Don’t think, act! And remember, voting on those electronic voting machines is not a secure way to vote. Paper, paper, paper!

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  7. Why thumbs down? I’m not calling for writing any voters off, explain please.

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  8. Tom Bryson · · Reply

    Democrats need to stop trying to win by imitating Republicans. Democrats are different and until they learn to differentiate themselves from Republicans they will continue to lose. I am supporting Charlie but am skeptical about our chances.

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  9. Tom, I agree with you about the democrats. Most responsible polling I’ve read shows the public ( democrats, republicans and independents) agree with us on the issues. Why the consultants insist on a phony centrist strategy is beyond me. Must be the $$. Like you I am also supporting Charlie but I am “cautiously optimistic” about his chances.

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    1. Tom Bryson · · Reply

      It is hard to motivate voters when rather than giving them something to vote for you are offering something to vote against. Only Charlie can solve this problem.

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  10. Concerned Democrat · · Reply

    So basically in a 60 day campaign spend time outside big vote banks?????

    How many times did Obama go to points in florida north of I-4?

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    1. Just FYI, Alachua county has five Obama staff, dozens of fellows, numerous events, a visit from Michelle and Joe Biden, and three physical offices. Crist has nothing here yet.

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      1. A voice of reason · ·

        By contrast Crist has a 100 staff on the ground already in south Florida. Why? Not exactly sure.

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  11. Lots of Democrats in Jacksonville,Gainesville and Tallahassee are there not? A couple of well managed days in these areas letting Dems there know there’re not forgotten can’t hurt. And doesn’t always have to be CC, but someone has to make the Democratic case to all voters! EVERY vote counts right?

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  12. A voice of reason · · Reply

    It is difficult for Crist an already polarizing figure to be taken seriously as governor of all the people if he is simply going to campaign in a few counties.

    The time to engage north Florida and rural voters had probably passed and yet they did not do it.

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  13. Steve Ellman · · Reply

    It may be helpful to visual NoFL as an archipelago of voter pools. The urban areas are worth targeting — Jax, G’ville, Tally — but Charlie doesn’t have time to walk the back roads of rural NoFL.

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    1. Agreed.

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  14. When it comes down to this the Democratic Party has become addicted to two things :

    1- Big money
    2- Not working hard

    Voters in smaller counties are overwhelmingly registered as Democrats. But the party has long lost its way in appealing properly to them. Alex Sink tried and she almost became Governor because of it, but the loud big money South Florida crowd then said she did not pay much attention to the southern tier of the state.

    Democrats have focused on the three south Florida counties because they produce $$$ and most of the party’s biggest donors. The DNC Chair is from there. But it is just one small corner of the state if you look at it objectively. Florida has close to 20 million people and only 6 million live in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale MSA. So that means 70% of the population lives elsewhere. Throw in Tampa/St Petersburg and Orlando MSA’s and you are up to 11 million. So The Democrats are willing to consciously ignore 45% of the state’s population? No wonder we never win?

    Broward County will vote for Democrats regardless. Orange County now is voting Democratic regardless. Miami-Dade and Palm Beach also. So why won’t Democrats engage where they are really needed, where those who need a push reside? LAziness and poor organizational tools and structures. The big money in the south demanding candidates set up offices on every square block in Broward County to cater to every ethnic minority down there.

    We are the party of the people. ALL the people. Let’s act like it. Charlie Crist needs to spend as much time Pensacola as he does in Fort Lauderdale. As much time in Panama City as he does in Tampa. Lawton Chiles did that and he won every election.

    Charlie Crist claim’s he’s the people’s Governor. The people only being those in large urban areas.

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  15. Upset, I agree about the $$, but it is a fact of political life in the USA so until we can change that dynamic we just have to play the cards that we are dealt. As for not working hard, maybe that applies to the bigwigs in DC and Tallahassee, but I a lot of local Dems knocking themselves out election after election. They are taken for granted IMHO. Organized Labour also works their tails off only to be first cast aside. A vote for a Democrat is a vote no matter what part of the state it is cast. The FDP needs to run a 67 County strategy, and the DNC needs to go BACK to the 50 State strategy. The GOP is playing for keeps here. If CC doesn’t pull this off we are in BIG trouble. If that happens then maybe we will be able to change the party’s leadership. Of course last time in Fl “we” chose $$ over the grassroots. I guess we’ll find out in the next 60 days how that works out for us.

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  16. Steve Ellman · · Reply

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  17. Steve Ellman · · Reply

    Charlie needs a coastal strategy.

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  18. OrlandoChris · · Reply

    Crist is a Elitist Republican in sheeps clothing, don’t be fooled. Why vote between 2 known liars? Florida, we are fortunate enough not to
    be stuck picking one liar or the other this time. We actually have an
    alternative. Take advantage of the opportunity. Adrian Wyllie deserves
    my vote. He is a honest average Floridian just as you and I , that is
    willing to stand up and do something for the interest of all of us here
    in Florida. The other candidates both Republican and Democrat are owned
    and controlled by special interest, like puppets and will lie to your
    face to gain your vote, then continue the same old agenda that we
    complain about year after year. Time to get off this merry-go-round,
    election after election, thinking it will be any different. Take a
    stand, vote for the candidate that loves this state and is willing to
    take time out of his life, effort and money to SERVE the people of
    Florida and stop voting for these ‘paid for’ career politicians that are
    only out for money and fame and have zero interest in us Floridians.
    Even if it’s just for honesty alone, vote for Adrian Wyllie instead of
    the other two (Scott/Crist) which are proven liars. The choice is yours
    and yours alone, if you want the same old corruption and slap in the
    face, go ahead and vote for one of the two puppets (Scott/Crist) OR do
    what is right for our (yours and your children’s) future and vote for
    Adrian Wyllie. Support him by donating to his campaign, spreading the
    word and contribute to the super brochure program which I think is very
    powerful. Visit his website today. Also, vote for Bill Wohlsifer- Florida Attorney General!

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    1. Steve Ellman · · Reply

      Any candidate who runs under the banner of “state’s rights,” as Wyllie does, doesn’t deserve anyone’s vote. http://wyllieforgovernor.com/wp-content/uploads/wyllieCommerce.jpg
      Then there’s the small matter of the man’s crackpot tendencies:
      “I propose that we begin transacting state business in gold and silver as required by Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution and introduce competing currencies legislation as Utah has already done, and other states are considering. This will give the State of Florida the ability to protect the value of our holdings with sound money, and lay the groundwork for Floridians to conduct transactions in an alternative form of currency should the U.S. Dollar experience a decline in value.”
      Libertarianism is simply a means to assure the dominance of private, corporate power.

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  19. floridian · · Reply

    This contradicts Kartik’s columns the past few years. He’s been arguing for more emphasis on the urban counties. Sink tried to get the rural north FL vote and she lost overall. If Broward, Dade, and PBC had voted at the level of the rest of the state she would be gov. The rural ones are a lost cause. Alachua and Leon may be the exceptions but the Democratic base is in Central and South FL.

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  20. […] for what Charlie Crist must do to win this gubernatorial election. Katy believes that Crist must work hard in smaller counties, especially those where Nan Rich perceived by many as a left-wing Broward County Democrat oddly […]

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