Coming off yet another off-year election debacle for Democrats both in Florida and nationally much of the narrative has focused on what Democrats can do differently. The discussion after three weeks has fallen into some lazy assumptions – The Democrats either need to shift en masse to the middle of the political spectrum or simply more aggressively own liberal positions; Democrats need to recruit better candidates and Democrats need to raise more money. While each of these theories has some validity (though the one about money quite frankly has the least relevance since Democrats and allied groups are not as badly outspent by the opposition as some of the spinmeisters would like the public to believe). But one thing stands out – Democrats in this state have consistently during off-year elections since 1994, been struggling to gain white votes. This is a trend that is similar to other southern states, though it arguably started slightly earlier in Florida. While I believe the failure of the President to address immigration before the election likely cost Governor Crist victory, the inability to properly connect with white voters left the Democrats with no margin for error among the minority communities in the state. When fewer Hispanics than hoped turned out to vote and 15% of the African American and black voters went with the Republican or Libertarian, Crist was beaten.
The efforts to micro-target minorities and newly minted immigrant groups is laudable and thanks to these efforts and the party’s policy positions, Democrats certainly represent a bigger tent than the Republicans do. With demographic shifts occurring each day, the party is well-positioned to win the future. But in the present day, Florida’s Democrats are struggling to win white votes and thus are losing election after election. The situation is not entirely hopeless as it is in neighboring states such as Georgia where the Democrats limited white support in statewide elections now comes from DeKalb and Fulton counties almost exclusively, or South Carolina and Louisiana where the once economic-based populist appeal that kept coastal whites and Cajuns respectively in the swing column has given way thanks to social issues and immigration among other things. But this situation must be addressed.
Democrats have made efforts discussing how to court every minority group under the sun, even extending efforts at a localized level to the likes of Chinese-Americans, Arab-Americans and Indian-Americans in recent election cycles. These groups represent a small part of the electorate though it must be noted Bob Buckhorn is Mayor of Tampa largely because of his outreach to the Muslim community. However, no larger program to try and cut into losses among the largest segment of the electorate has been pursued by the party.
Charlie Crist received just 37% of the white vote on November 4th, and the other Democratic candidates for state office earned an even a lower percentage per exit poll data. If you were somehow able to break-out Jewish-American voters from the white percentage, chances are Crist got about 30% of the white, non-Jewish vote. While long-term demographics shifts favor the Democrats minority-oriented approach, it is fraught with risk in current times which may explain why Florida Democrats have lost 17 of the last 18 races for state offices, a percentage I will remind our readers that seems statistically improbable in a purple state like Florida. Despite constituting a declining percentage of Florida’s electorate, white voters still cast 69% of the ballots statewide in 2014. Receiving this low a percentage of the most reliable portion of the electorate means you are always going to start at a major disadvantage.
Despite massive efforts by outside groups and Democratic affiliated entities to rally white women, particularly younger white women concerned about reproductive rights, education and environmental issues, Crist won just 39% of the white female vote, a percentage that is quite frankly beyond belief and unacceptable. Given the Democrats efforts on issues that matter to females both economically and socially, an evaluation of whether this messaging needs to be fine tuned is critical. This effort needs to be undertaken as soon as possible.
For example, on Reproductive Rights, for years polling data has shown consistent numbers or even a declining support for a women’s right to control their own medical decisions. This has happened at the very same time as social attitudes towards same-sex marriage, use of cannabis and racial attitudes have all swung to the left in some cases dramatically. Why is this, and how can we be saying things differently to where they make sense?
Economic populism which could be advocated by former Senator Jim Webb if he seeks the 2016 Democratic nomination could be a potential route back for the party in rural and exurban areas throughout the south. In recent years, the Democrats have lost a remarkable amount of county commissioners and county constitutional officers in rural and exurban counties. These loses have seemingly gone unnoticed by the powers that be and no attempt has been made the arrest them. The same trend that took place at the national level in the 1980’s and 1990’s and then at the state level in the 2000’s now has spread to the local level in 2010’s – white flight from the Democratic Party outside urban and suburban areas.
While creating an appeal around social issues that potentially compromises the Democratic brand in the state’s largest urban areas is unwise, economic and environmental/quality of life issues can be stressed to try and cut some of the massive margins the GOP is carrying out of the state’s medium-sized counties. The failure to connect properly with white voters, particularly females will continue to cost Democrats going forward. That is why the critical questions need to be asked now and a plan of action should be formulated with the 2018 cycle in mind.
As we go forward, reader input is important on this matter. Given the stakes we’d love to hear from activists and thinkers across Florida about how to win back enough white votes outside of large urban areas in order to win statewide elections again. What issues need to be targeted in order to lift the Democrats white vote into the low to mid 40’s in off-year cycles? How do these issues need to be couched to electorate as a whole?
Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments section.