2016, Florida Democrats and the myth of moderate candidates performing well

Much has been made in the last three months of the need for Democrats in Florida to “engage moderate voters,” in the wake of poor electoral performances in 2014. No question exists that moderates have a role to play, particularly in rural areas where the party has seen a complete collapse in support since the mid/late 1990’s. But it would be foolish to believe that the Democratic message in this state has been more liberal than centrist. The Democratic brand has in many cases simply been identified as “anti-Republican” or based largely around one or two social issues. The important issues of economic and social justice have been largely abandoned by the Democrats in this state, it appears due to a misreading of the electorate and populace. Other factors in the party’s unwillingness to embrace progressive values revolve around the influence of special interests on elected officials who call themselves Democrats.

Florida Democrats have time and again nominated moderates for statewide office, yet have managed to lose 19 of the last 20 statewide elections where Bill Nelson was not on the ballot. During this same period, the Democratic Presidential nominee has won the state THREE TIMES running as a liberal (This is counting Al Gore’s result in 2000 as a victory). Statewide leaders in the Democratic Party have consistently talked about the need to nominate moderate candidates to be competitive in general elections though ZERO empirical evidence exists that moderate nominees perform better than liberal ones. Only once in the period did the Democrats nominate an out-and-out liberal for statewide office, Dan Gelber for Attorney General in 2010. Otherwise, the Democrats nominated moderates or those who tried to play moderate once running in a general.

The 2016 US Senate race is around the corner and while this particular writer still believes Senator Marco Rubio is a healthy favorite, the Democratic Party needs to field strong opposition. Yet large elements of the party establishment is already pushing hard to make Congressman Patrick Murphy the nominee. The problem is Murphy doesn’t stand for much, and has won twice against incredibly weak opposition. In fact in the last election, Murphy beat Carl Domino who might be single biggest underperformer as a multiple time candidate in the modern history of the Florida House of Representatives. Thus the jump to a congressional race was always going to make Domino a weak Republican. This is not to say Murphy shouldn’t be the nominee –  but he should not be anointed and progressives should not be marginalized or discounted yet again by party elders.  The mention of the likes Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alan Grayson or others are often met with snickers from political professionals who say “they cannot win.” Yet the Democrats have time and again run candidates like Murphy and LOST.

The Tallahassee establishment and those around the mechanisms of power in the capital city consistently point to a need to compete in North Florida as a criteria for needing to nominate “moderate” candidates. But those same people forget that if you take liberal Leon County out of the equation, the rest of CD-2 represents less than 2.5% of the electorate in the state. At the same time the Democrats have largely ignored medium sized counties such as Marion, Pasco, Manatee, Lee, Polk, Brevard and others where Obama drove up turnout in 2008 and 2012. He didn’t win any of the aforementioned counties but he did perform better (by percentage of the vote) in all of them then Charlie Crist or Alex Sink.  Every county I listed has at least 200,000 voters while Brevard, Pasco and Polk both have more people than CD-2 when you eliminate Leon County.  Lee County has more people than CD-2 including Leon. Yet Democrats aren’t emphasizing what would work in these critical parts of the state, areas they often drive through or drive by in their journeys from Tallahassee to the large urban centers of the state.

The idea of “swing voters,” someone who consciously splits their tickets or tries to balance some issues against others, is a distinctly dated concept. In the 1990s these voters existed en masse especially here in Florida, but today with few exceptions people who turn out do so to vote down the line for the party that better represents their values.

Voters these days are driven by emotion on one or two big issues. Even if they describe themselves as “moderates,” chances are very good they vote based on one or two issues where they are either clearly conservative or clearly liberal. This is particularly true in midterm elections. Lower voter turnout in midterm elections among Democrats from my vantage point can be traced largely if not wholly to a party brand that does not identify with the values it campaigns on during Presidential years. The party’s messaging also has consistently failed to mirror the voices of leading progressive groups. This is a problem as well on the national level, where the corporate bent of the Democratic Party is worse than it is here in Florida.

The theory that the party must be more moderate and avoid as much as possible topics such as economic justice, a living wage, corporate responsibility, health care, environmental preservation, climate change and gender equality in the workforce often develop thanks to the types of contributors individual Democratic elected officials cultivate, and the sorts of folks they hang around in Tallahassee. The need to be more moderate theory was once again floated by party elders within days of the November 2014 election defeat without a SINGLE PIECE OF EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE TO BACK UP THESE CLAIMS. 

As we have previously discussed about the Democratic bastion of Broward County, the transactional nature of that county’s Democratic operatives and leaders has disaffected those interested in progressive causes and social justice from elements within the party. So even in places which appear on paper to be more progressive than the rest of the state, the influence of money and special interest access has clouded the judgement of many Democrats.

In a six square-block area around the capitol, the Democratic legislators and other elected officials who come up during session for various “days” might feel they have to kowtow to political ‘experts’ who are paid hired guns that claim to know strategically what works best for the party. They may believe that these guns-for-hire have all the answers when they being wined and dined by them or other corporate lobbyists. But in the rest of the state, the real grassroots and those struggling to get by every day are looking for aggressive leadership from the Democrats.

The FDP can only do so much even if they try — it is the elected officials who run as Democrats, not the party itself, who have time and again sought creative ways to avoid discussion on real issues, and being true progressives that would connect with working class families and voters throughout this state. It is these same elected officials that for the most part avoid things that drive media also including criminal justice reform, gun safety, civil rights and racial issues including law enforcement over zealousness, and most discussion of immigration. I reiterate that I firmly believe President Obama’s ill-conceived punt on immigration in order to placate moderate U.S. Senators running for reelection cost Charlie Crist the governorship, while every single senator the delay was meant to help lost decisively. We can continue hand wringing about the other numerous and valid reasons Crist lost, but this was single most decisive factor in my mind. The slump in Hispanic turnout also led to a wipeout down-ballot for Democrats throughout the state.

Low voter turnout in off years is in my opinion largely due to Democrats disengagement on economic issues and those of social justice. But with the push coming from Tallahassee insiders, lobbyists and corporate interests throughout the default solution for Democrats is always to “move to the middle.” If moving right were a viable solution the Democrats would have been long in control of both houses of the legislature and the state cabinet. Instead this is a party that has barely won 5% of races for Governor and Cabinet since 2000. When voters are denied a clear choice at the ballot box and forced to choose between a real Republican and a phony one, they choose the real one just about every single time.

Even if it is a more moderate government that is sought, candidates running to the left and making democracy really work is needed. Moderation in governing can only come if the minority party stays true to its values and holds firm. A move to the middle by the Democrats would not improve the party’s electoral prospects as we have seen time and again over the last 15 years, and would cede important positioning in the effort to temper the excessive conservatism of the governing party and its special interest allies. Democrats must remember this when approaching the 2016 and 2018 election cycles. The demographic changes in this state and nation favor the Democrats if they stay true to the values which the majority of citizens of this country have demonstrated they believe in. But if Tallahassee-based insiders and political operatives are allowed to let their bottom line and control of the process override common sense, we will have several more election cycles that resemble recent ones in this state.

31 comments

  1. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    The only thing missing from this drivel is your theory that Janet Reno would have run 5 points stronger than Bill McBride. Yes folks, Kartik has said that over and over again through the years.

    CLUELESS IN PALM BEACH, TAMPA and ORLANDO = KARTIK and his lefty friends.

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    1. One of the chief lessons of the McBride debacle which some Florida Democrats STILL have not learned 12 years after the fact is the number of voters in Broward and Dade that simply didn’t turn out of the general. Others voted for Bush. McBride’s margins was thin in Broward and he lost Dade. I am positive Reno would have performed SUBSTANTIALLY better in these counties.

      Since 2002, we have not had a clear left v middle primary for Governor. Crist avoided issues completely and didn’t really wage a primary campaign. But in 2002, as someone working for the party at the time I can attest ALL THE SCREWS were put to people across the state to back McBride. And what happened was the single biggest election defeat for Dem nominee for Governor in Florida’s history. I backed Reno openly of course. The wounds I suffered during this primary was a big part of my political evolution from party centric operative to liberal activism first.

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  2. BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  3. I wonder who Blue Dog Dem would suggest? (BTW, great post, Kartik.)

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  4. The question is do you want to win or just go down fighting to make a point? Murphy can win the others cannot. Can you imagine DWS or Grayson campaigning in Dixie County? Deutch in Calhoun? These candidates would be non-starters in most counties and we need a 67 county strategy.

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    1. This is rich…

      Murphy can win the others cannot

      What is this based on?

      Can you imagine DWS or Grayson campaigning in Dixie County? Deutch in Calhoun? These candidates would be non-starters in most counties and we need a 67 county strategy.

      I believe you left the comment yesterday about us not competing in most counties. Obama won the state in 2012 while losing 55 of 67 counties. He cut GOP margins in the medium sized counties I have talked about and ran up huge margins in Broward, Dade and Orange while carrying Hillsborough, Pinellas and Palm Beach.

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  5. Trip Trey · · Reply

    I agree totally with this article. Honestly how many more unpolished mushy moderate statewide candidates do we need to lose with before shifting tactics? This continues to prove your point about people who feed at the trough just for the reason that reinforces their comfort zone so that they can continue to profit off the losing campaign of a minority party. Talking constantly about rural North Florida counties reinforces the comfort zone of those in Tallahassee at ignores the vast medium sized parts of the state that these people have not spent any time in and don’t care to learn about. This article is spot on for multiple reasons.

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  6. The Democratic Party needs to return to proving liberalism works. Appeasing corrupt insiders is a failed strategy. Patrick “Flip Flop” Murphy is a big business corporate state Republican insider. He is not a solid Democrat.

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  7. Hank Porter · · Reply

    Broadly speaking, I agree with this article. Moreover, the political strategists that I talk to also agree. This best evidence for a shift in thinking is the Crist campaign rightly abandoning the Graham/Chiles “North/Central” strategy for a Obama12 “Central/South” strategy. Now, we can all agree that Crist ran a milquetoast campaign and was a flawed as a progressive champion, but there’s no arguing that he ran the most openly “liberal” statewide campaign in a generation. At least he tried to appeal to SE Florida.

    I’m not sure how much evidence from the 1990s (or even 2002) elections is relevant today. More than half the electorate has turned over since 2002 and the new voters are more likely to be Hispanic and young than the previous cohort. As such, the 2014, 2016 and 2018 campaigns will necessitate a very different approach than in 1990 and 1994. Its 100% true, however, that Democratic candidates will find a base mobilization effort of black and hispanic voters to be more fruitful than a persuasion campaign in North and interior Florida.

    I think framing these issues on a moderate/liberal scale leaves a lot to be desired. The successful candidates in 2014 (Graham, Sachs, Dudley, JJR, Amanda Murphy, etc.) ran campaigns very specific to their communities. The lesson of 2006 and 2008 congressional successes was to recruit candidates with some idiosyncratic policy positions and with local appeal. Imposing either a “moderate” or “progressive” framework on candidates in an unnecessary constraint.

    One related, final point: saying that Reno was more liberal than McBride obscures more than it reveals. Their differences were more coalition-based rather than a pure left/right divide.

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  8. True Blue · · Reply

    This is a very important article that needs to be blasted out across the state.

    Fact is the Democrats keep nominating self-proclaimed and perceived moderates.

    Fact is the Democrats keep losing following this formula.

    I don’t agree with Kartik that Rubio is an overwhelming favorite but do agree he won’t be beat by a candidate that does nothing to inspire turnout.

    Kartik forgot Kendrick Meek in his analysis but that’s fine. The party was so scared of Meek’s liberalism large elements encouraged and backed Charlie Crist’s independent candidacy. Even the White House tried in vain to get Meek to withdraw and make Crist the effective D nominee.

    In 2014, Democrats ran to the middle across the country and were wiped out. This happened while polling consistently showed the issues of the left were popular with the electorate. But the theory of swing voters pushed by party operatives and consultants pushed Dem candidates the other way.

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  9. This entire article is trash.

    Nominate DWS or Grayson and lose!

    Murphy can win and has proven it by holding a strongly republican seat.

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  10. Thank Kendrick Meek and the dumbocrat progressives for Marco Rubio.

    Crist gets Rubio one on one he wins!

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    1. I am so tired of hearing this simplistic bit of analysis. Two points here.

      Meek drops out and likely Af-American turnout goes down even further.
      Crist becomes the defacto Dem and the moderate Rs and R inclined NPAs that supported him as an Independent either shift to Rubio or skip the race.

      Crist wasn’t beating Rubio be it in a GOP primary or in a general. Full stop.

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  11. Nailed it! Great article. Wil the party listen? Noooooo.

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  12. When things don’t go right, go left. Alan Grayson for Senator.

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  13. Tampa Bay Demo · · Reply

    Values based party a must.

    Crist was a dud and beware the efforts to force Annette Taddeo on us as fresh face and a viable statewide candidate or party chair.

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  14. Why do we lose?

    The whininess of Kartik, Susan, the leftist crowd and Kartik’s “true blue” “amazing” young bleeding heart friends in orlando (his words on facebook to describe his orlando buddies who are as lefty, dangerous and crazy as him) All of these radical ideas and wrong headed articles that HURT the party.

    What’s the point in waging a fight if you’re going to lose? We need to nominate candidates who can win and the more moderate the candidate the more likely to win. It’s not rocket science it’s just logical. You claim there’s no empirical data to back this up but it’s just logical. I’m sorry for all the people who think you’re so smart you’re a fucking idiot if you don’t see that.

    I for one am tired of the influence this blog has within our party. I think the time is come to start a mainstream democratic site that backs Democratic candidates unconditionally and doesn’t keep pushing the party into places where we have no chance of escaping with a victory.

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    1. I’d be more than happy to explain to you why Progressives are the heart and soul of the party and why Republican lights like you are totally wrong. Unfortunately you hide under a paper bag an attack like a coward. You know who i am. Contact me if you have the guts.

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  15. Fla Democrat · · Reply

    A problem is that this blog is the only viable consistent statewide Democratic blog and is constantly echoeing the views of the most extreme elements in our party. I am so sick of people here in Tallahassee saying something is a good idea because they read it in the Florida Squeeze or “Kartik says this” and “Katy says that.” With all this power you have accumulated comes a responsbility to support our party’s efforts. Patrick Murphy is by far the best shot we have. You guys will be HANDING the race to Rubio if you continue down this path.

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    1. I have absolutely no responsibility to support the Florida Democratic Party. They have done nothing to deserve unquestionable trust. I never wish to exist in a world where loyalty is assumed and not earned.

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    2. Quite frankly I continue to be insulted by the group think forced on us by some political insiders. I don’t get this line at all…

      ” With all this power you have accumulated comes a responsibility to support our party’s efforts.

      We are trying to position the party properly where it reflects the values of progressives throughout the state. Besides, I know of no organized party effort to endorse in this Senate Primary as of yet, so by laying down an early marker I feel we are being supportive of the FDP and helping the party find its voice.

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    3. Another face hidden to the public. You snipe at the Progressive wing and hide like a coward. Personally I believe you are a Repug. plant.

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    4. Patti Lynn · · Reply

      What is extreme about equality? What is extreme about paying a living wage? What is extreme about quality public education? What is extreme about organized labor? Those are, in fact, true DEMOCRATIC values. It is the abandoning of these, our core principles, that has caused such havoc with our elections.

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  16. Get a grip people · · Reply

    When the democrats start winning elections then they can attack Kartik and Co. for being too radical and hurting the party. Until them, their voices are as worthwhile as yours!

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  17. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    This article the more I read it makes me angrier. It’s really insulting towards party moderates.

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    1. You mean Republican lights don’t you. Charlie is this you? LOL

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  18. The Observer · · Reply

    Kartik, how about you run for Governor next cycle. I will manage the campaign for free.

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  19. The future · · Reply

    It’s important that people remember a lot of these candidates run as moderates because of the consultant class and vendors. They are the ones that keep costing the Dems.

    Taking out the consultant trash is so needed!

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  20. This is a fantastic article! Well done and so critical the party reads this.

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  21. It’s really simple, and yet we make the same mistakes again and again. It has nothing to do with the left not being action-oriented, or “achievement-minded.” It has to do with how you losing your soul translates directly into losing votes. It’s instant karma, yo.

    But don’t take my word for it — look at where the unions, advocacy groups and (gasp!) party members are flocking now: paid sick days, raise the wage, and equal pay for women. These have been long-standing progressive values…and we WIN ELECTIONS WITH THEM.

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  22. […] potentially running for US Senate. As we have outlined before, much of this reasoning is based on outdated theories about “moderates” and the need to appeal to “mainstream” voters.  However, it must be conceded that the numbers […]

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