The era of partisan polarization appears complete when a man who won statewide office three times as a Republican is running the most progressive campaign for Governor of our state in at least a quarter century. Without question, Charlie Crist’s previous record as a leader in the state would put him to the right of center on the vast majority of issues but his campaign is being run on the most progressive platform and with the most liberal rhetoric we have seen in some time from a Florida Democrat running for Governor.
In the last several “off-year” cycles, the Democrats have nominated candidates who have chosen to run to the middle and focus on convincing independents and “swing voters” to cast a ballot against Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott respectively. But what has been proven in the last few “off-year” cycles is that modern elections in Florida and in fact nationally 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 anytime 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 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 to nominate candidates who tried to appeal to mythical independents fall flat on its face.
Crist’s campaign has focused on the base- Obama voters concerned about healthcare, economic security, the excesses of insurance companies, environmental activism and the cronyism of the Republicans in this state led by Rick Scott. The themes Crist have hit are things that often times were absent from Democratic campaigns in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Some of these items were even absent in 1990, 1994, and 1998 when the Democrats controlled large elements of North Florida and did not want to “offend” voters in that region.
The last classic liberal to be nominated by the Democrats for Governor was Jacksonville-based State Rep. Steve Pajcic in 1986. Pajcic was (and continues to be) one of the state’s leading trial attorneys and a great consumer advocate. His running mate was a more conservative State Senator Frank Mann of Fort Myers. Pajcic was crushed on the same day Bob Graham won a landslide election to the US Senate while the Democrats lost seven State Senate seats, souring the party on liberal nominees and liberal candidates for a generation.
But the success of national Democrats should have been instructive to Floridians. 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 is running the most Democratic campaign for state’s top office in the General Election since 1998 or perhaps even since 1986.
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. Charlie Crist, a master politicians who has been elected statewide three times knows better and is showing his political skill in this campaign.
I remain confident that if Charlie Crist follows the Obama playbook and emphasizes his populist stands he has a good chance to return to the Governor’s Mansion. Crist’s poll numbers should not frighten anybody if the Democrats work the base properly. The polls do not reflect the connection Crist’s campaign themes are making with the base of the Democratic Party. Running as a strong progressive, Crist is showing his ability to understand what it takes to be a die and the wool Democrat. Perhaps nothing is quite like the zeal of a convert!