Florida Democrats and the consultants that regularly advise them are notorious for their theories about voter behavior. Time and again we are told the party must nominate “moderate” and “centrist” candidates who speak to “swing” voters. The problem is all of these labels are mythical and theories behind them are grounded in a time when Bill Clinton was President.
As we have discussed time and again on this site, voters generally cast ballots based on one or two issues that matter to them, and that they are either liberal or conservative on those key issues. While the Washington press corp likes to lament the breakdown in civility as some sort of indication that American politics is nasty and broken, the reality is that the polarization of politics in the nation’s capital is simply reflection of the changing political tenor among the electorate.
Hillary Clinton and her team of highly competent political advisers understand something many Florida Democrats still cannot get their heads around – that the electorate no longer seeks “consensus” candidates but those who stand tall on issues and embrace big ideas. Candidates and elected officials whose platforms simply are opposition talking points or reflect indecisiveness do not win – yet those are exactly the types of candidates and messaging platforms that have been repeatedly embraced by Florida’s Democratic Party elite. Senator Clinton realizes she is running in 2016, not in 1996 as her husband did for reelection. Following the Republican landslide (Gingrich Revolution) of 1994, President Clinton pivoted to the middle creating a “third way” backed by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and cutting congressional Democrats who had fallen into the minority adrift. Clinton’s selfish politics denied House Democrats the opportunity to retake the body in 1996 despite Clinton’s victory and in the Senate the Democrats actually lost seats while the President was winning nationally by an eight point margin.
But beginning in the very next Presidential election, we saw the advent of big turnout ideological voters. Florida’s rural counties that had backed Bill Clinton in 1996 shifted heavily away from Al Gore, but the Vice President became the first Democrat to carry Orange County since Franklin Roosevelt. The demographic shift and changes in attitudes became hardened in the 2004 election and by 2006 voter turnout could be tied directly to motivating base constituencies. The Washington DC press corp was late to recognize these changes, feeling President Clinton was still the “best political strategist” in the nation when he helped shape Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign which was based around centrist themes. Eight years later, Senator Clinton’s team realize that was a mistake and have come out of the box impressively by embracing progressive themes and ideas across the board.
But in Florida, many didn’t get the memo. Following the 2014 election disaster, much was made of the need for Democrats in Florida to “engage moderate voters.” No question exists that the few moderate voters (many of whom are people tied to the political process in either major party) have a role to play, particularly in rural areas where the party has seen a complete collapse in support since the Clinton reelection in 1996. But it would be foolish to believe that the Democratic message in this state has been ever been more liberal than centrist. The Democratic brand has in many cases simply been identified as “anti-Republican” or based largely around social issues. The important issues of economic and social justice have been largely abandoned or ignored by the Democrats in this state 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 throughout the state but particularity in progressive Broward and Palm Beach counties who call themselves Democrats.
The idea of “swing voters,” someone who consciously splits their tickets or tries to balance some issues against others, is as we have consistently stated a distinctly dated concept. In the 1990s when Bill Clinton’s “third way” ruled the political climate, 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. But as discussed above by 2008 they were far and few between. Yet many Democratic political consultants and insiders in Florida continue to talk about them constantly especially when trying to identify “electable” candidates for statewide office.
In a six square-block area around the state 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.
Hillary Clinton has defied the media’s conventional wisdom by providing just this sort of aggressive leadership thus far in her campaign. Democrats in Florida would be wise to embrace it – while consultants based in this state are smart, the savviest politicos in the country on the Democratic side are mostly advising the Clinton campaign. These savvy pols have made a conscious decision to tact to the left because that is where they believe the electorate is and that general elections are turnout wars. Those who have so poorly directed Florida’s Democratic candidates over the past two decades would be wise to follow this example.