We’ve discussed time and again the comfort zone that many Democratic operatives and party insiders have with campaigning in North Florida. Days after the 2014 election debacle, many Democratic insiders were already pointing to Charlie Crist’s “under-performance” in North Florida as the cause of his defeat. Never mind that fact that Hispanics which represented 17% of the Florida electorate in 2012 according to exit polling only represented 13% in 2014. Strangely addressing the deficiencies in Latino/Hispanic turnout aren’t discussed in the LEAD Task Force report as extensively as the “vote deficit” Democrats faced in North Florida.
The decline in Democratic vote in North Florida in 2014 while regrettable is part of a regional trend in the southeast away from Democrats at every level of Government. It also represents a shift of many state workers in rural North Florida counties toward voting on cultural issues. Anger at Jeb Bush’s handling of government workers drove much of the success Democratic Gubernatorial candidates had in 2002 and 2006 in the region, while in 2010 Alex Sink’s intensive North Florida effort yielded positive results. But in 2014 throughout the south, rural areas that abandoned the Democrats in 2010 shifted en masse among every white voter to the GOP. If you look at election results from 2006, 2010 and 2014 throughout the rural south, the trend line is clear – numbers for Democrats at the top of the ticket and even down ballot are declining rapidly. Gwen Graham’s victory in the 2nd Congressional District was significant but a result that bucked an ongoing national trend.
Many of the assumptions made by leaders in the party are based on the dated concept of “swing voters.” The idea of “swing voters” someone who consciously splits their tickets or tries to balance some issues against others is a distinctly dated concept. Votes 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 mid-term elections.
We’ve all been on this ride before. Florida’s Democratic Primary voters were told by party elders in 2002 that Janet Reno’s nomination would be a disaster for Democrats and that the “moderate” late Bill McBride from Tampa would be the right image for the party. Well meaning activists and elected officials pushed McBride down primary voters throats because they had been told he was the strongest possible statewide candidate against the popular and politically astute Jeb Bush. Thanks to this push, McBride won almost every Florida county in the primary with Reno, but lost badly in the three southeast Florida counties (which more resemble New York or New Jersey in voting patterns than the rest of Florida).
McBride’s nomination was disastrous for Florida’s Democrats with the GOP winning a record majority in both chambers of the Florida Legislature. One can only speculate on Janet Reno’s electability statewide. While many southeast Floridians seem to owe more loyalty to New York or New Jersey than to Florida, Reno was distinctly old Florida. McBride, on the other hand, spoke like an old Floridian, but lacked the understanding and passion for issues affecting old Florida, particularly environmental ones. McBride was a distinctly new Florida lawyer with little idea how to appeal to ethnic urban voters or old Florida constituencies. His nomination was a disaster up and down the I-4 corridor where he was badly routed by Bush.
This cycle was repeated in the 2004 US Senate race when southeast Floridians Alex Penelas and Peter Deutsch were considered “too ethnic” for voters north of Jupiter. Much like politics in northern states, ethnic urban candidates are often seen as undesirable in the rural and suburban areas of those states. Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York have long histories of nominating candidates from outside urban areas in their Democratic Primaries. The obsession of Pennsylvania and Illinois Democrats with selecting nominees from outside Philadelphia and Chicago respectively has finally vanished. From that we have produced Governor Ed Rendell and President Barack Obama, two of the most able Democrats in the nation. The 21st Century has brought throughout the nation a new emphasis on problem solving and ability and less of an emphasis on ideology throughout the nation. In this day and age Democrats are winning suburban voters that they lost in the 1970’s and 1980’s by wide margins.
We also have “Democratic” lobbyists and political operatives in Tallahassee that drive this narrative of “swing voters” and North Florida importance. This group has a vested interest in maintaining something resembling the status quo, where Democrats are reliant on corporate or dirty money and seeing “moderate” candidates tied to the corporate wing of the party nominated and ultimately elected to the legislature. They are able to exploit the competitive Democratic primaries in southeast Florida and the desire of political activists to become “operatives” to play in primaries and ultimately prevail with more conservative candidates in heavily Democratic areas. Following Buddy MacKay’s defeat in the 1998 Governor’s race where many of this group defected they became more and more powerful. In time, they drove support to Bush Republicans while playing in Democratic Primaries for State Legislature. Today, this group has a major influence on the money raised by Democrats who run in competitive party primaries in safe D seats.
We need to remember that voters these days are driven by emotion on one or two big issues. Even if they describe themselves as “moderates,” in polling, 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 more I read the LEAD report the more I believe it could have been formulated in one afternoon at Starbucks by a few party insiders partial to continued Tallahassee-centric power. The report doesn’t address something as basic as the need to activate Hispanic voters consistently or offer solutions to turnout problems other than basic, generic cookie-cutter statements. The report which is based on a combination of faulty/dated assumptions and obvious recommendations that could come from any campaign training manual is a major disappointment especially coming after months of anticipation.