The state of Florida is about as complicated and unique as any state in the union. Florida might even be considered the most accurate microcosm of America in some senses, but in others it is the most idiosyncratic locale in the United States. With more major media markets than any other state and diverse regions, many of which have been overlooked by Florida Democrats a key problem persists – the deployment of non-local and non-Florida talent to manage political races and party functions in this state.
The model of deploying out-of-state operatives to campaigns in Florida is age old and used by both parties. The problem is that Florida has grown more unique and requires the expertise of those with local knowledge and historical understandings of the state. Florida’s media markets are all different – in fact within each market lies differences and challenges.
As Florida Democrats have in recent years employed more out-of-state operatives in staff positions or campaign roles, the thought process in campaigns have become more insular. While numbers-based campaigning is comfortable, much of the decline of Florida Democrats in areas outside major urban centers might have to do with the pure biases of outsiders (focus on big cities and minority populations) in addition to the lack of historical knowledge these individuals have about places like Volusia, Polk or Pasco counties. The discussion among those from out-of-state is often dictated by the misunderstandings of Florida coming from Washington DC or other national locales, or even the preferences of fundraisers most of whom are tied to urban areas, especially southeast Florida.
Using out-of-state operatives only exacerbates the difficulties created by the power given to a Tallahassee-based staff and non-Democratic lobbyists who the staff may rub shoulders with. The combination of Tallahassee-based staff and those from outside Florida compounds the lack of understanding and knowledge about the areas where Democrats are getting beat much worse than they should be. While some of the decline outside major urban centers might have to do with national trends, it has certainly been steeper and more pronounced in Florida than it should be, even with what has been happening in general around the country.
A case has always been made that those in Florida or local areas have direct ties to political operatives and lobbyists that could prejudice them in the jobs they are commissioned to do. That is certainly a concern – if a statewide campaign hires a local operative connected to a specific faction within a local Democratic Party or certain elected-officials it might in fact damage the campaign’s relationship with others in the area. But it should be noted that this is probably preferable to having decision making authority vested in those who have no local ties and don’t have to live with the decisions made after an election. In the past, I believed the maintenance of relationships and the factionalism with the party and communities of Democratic elected officials made platooning in outsiders a smart move. In 2002 and 2004 I advocated the use of outsiders for this very reason. But those election cycles were disasters and in 2006 Florida Democrats did better using more local and state hands. Since Florida Democrats have lost one race after another the view of using out of staters has to revisted and those with stronger local ties and knowledge of the state need to be empowered to make decisions and have a seat at the table for the most critical strategic sessions.
Ultimately, Florida’s unique landscape requires deep knowledge and understanding of the state to be successful. Many who come from out of state are well-meaning youngsters looking to fill a resume line in the most purple of states – but when the margins are so thin and thus mistakes in strategy and judgement so much more important, having steady local hands matters more than just about anything else. While a downside does exist to using local operatives and talent in party and campaign functions (as outlined above), it probably trumps the continued deployment of out-of-state staffers and operatives who have never worked in environments quite like what Florida offers.