On Friday, we found out that we are going to be stuck with the State Senate map. Today, we found out that we are going to be stuck with the Congressional map. And previously, we knew what the State House map was going to look like. So now that we know the districts, we know what we have to do.
But I do have a fundamental question…are we over-examining these elections? While most of the people reading this blog might have a keen interest in Florida politics, going as far as knowing every member of the Florida Legislature, we have to realize that the average Florida voter doesn’t.
If one of us would ask the average man or woman on the street “who is your State Representative”, I’m sure many would be clueless or wouldn’t care. I would even venture the say that we could bump that knowledge level all the way up to Congressional races. Basically, we all act like we are picking the right candidates, but are we?
Over the years, I have made some observations. One thing that I have keenly looked at was the emergence of the Republican Party. When observing, I have looked at the GOP in Florida, but I have looked at the GOP throughout the United States to see how they work. And looking at the Democrats and how we operate, I see why the Republicans are winning, specifically in Florida.
One issue that was pointed out in David Colburn’s book From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans, was that most voters in our state are oblivious to what is happening in state politics. Yes, they know the Presidential level but that is about it. Therefore, voters are more swayed by candidates that are good looking, have a popular name, or some other way in which the voter can identify with them. He claims this is the reason why Jeb Bush defeated both Buddy MacKay and Jim Davis…people knew Bush, he spoke well and kept himself well. Not saying that the Democrats didn’t, but they weren’t as good at it as Bush.
Even with this being said, I first noticed how the Republicans worked their magic back in the 1994 election, specifically in Oklahoma. Yes, Oklahoma. Back then, the Republicans ran popular University of Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts in Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District, which was held by a Democrat. Watts won the race and would eventually become a leader in the Republican Party.
But just picking a popular candidate wasn’t what interested me. I remember watching C-SPAN in 1995 and seeing Watts proceeding over a session of the House in the Speaker’s Chair. What was interesting about that was that there was someone next to him telling him exactly what to say. With Watts’ constant stumbling over his own words, and actually overhearing whoever the gentleman was next to him that he was repeating over the microphone, it was obvious that Watts didn’t know a damn thing about politics, much less have the know-how to preside over a session of the House.
Then it dawned on me…Republicans get popular, good looking, well spoken people to run. In many cases, they know nothing about politics. Then, because they are good looking, well spoken and popular, they win their election purely off of their charm. And once they are elected, the Republican Party teaches them about politics. And because they teach them, they easily fall in line because they are only being taught one thing, the party line. That is how the Republican machine works.
On the Democratic side, we do the opposite. We get the candidates that actually know the issues. And while they are smart, and in many cases win the endorsements of newspapers and other organizations, they never win. Democratic candidates might not look as posh, don’t own a business, aren’t that great at speaking, or lacking whatever trait that might make them ‘popular’.
To put it in a nutshell, Republicans recruit the high school football captain and then teach him how to play chess. The Democrats recruit the Chess Club president and try to make him the high school football captain. Once Democrats, on every level, realize that this is more of a popularity contest than it is a “battle of the issues”, then Democrats might be able to pick up more races.
Even with this all being said, I don’t think that this analogy applies throughout the state. For example, in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, the voters are more engaged. Therefore, issues matter.
But in Central Florida, where people are more concerned about when their EPCOT After 4 Pass expires compared to anything in state politics, candidates with that polished look can easily pull off a win. Hell, look at many of the people representing Central Florida…Andy Gardiner, Dean Cannon, Dan Webster, Mike Horner, Darren Soto, Eric Eisnaugle, Stephen Precourt. While many of these men are on totally different intellectual levels (and yes, I put Darren Soto at the top of that list), they all have that polished look, can speak well and are good “vote getters”. Some of these members have been absolutely useless, but they still win. It is an “image” thing.
Another thing that I find quite interesting is what I like to call the “clean means moderate effect”. I have a lot of friends who don’t know anything about politics whatsoever. They know the candidates, see their picture on television and make their opinion on whether they like a candidate purely on looks and speaking ability alone. But one thing that I have noticed is that when a candidate looks well kept, speaks well and presents himself in a non-hostile manner, these friends of mine think that these candidates are “moderate”. And, as odd as that might sound, it is absolutely true.
Would you like to know some of the “moderates” my friends like? Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mel Martinez, Rich Crotty, just to name a few.
Democrats need to quit thinking like Democrats. In order to win elections, we need to think like “voters”. And, sadly, in Florida, stupid things like what I mentioned above are actually factors in winning elections. Republicans get this, Democrats don’t.
Maybe the Democratic Party, at every level, needs to start running itself like the Republican Party. For years, Democratic organizations act more like an activist group. Republicans try to run their party like a business. This is the reason I am truly scared of possibly having an activist as our next Florida Democratic Party chair. If moderates want to run for office, are we going to turn them away because they aren’t exactly 100% down the liberal line?
If we, as a political party, want to capture the House and Senate, we need to think like the other side. In addition, we need to think like the voters. We need to stop over-analyzing our decisions and come up with a template when it comes to recruiting candidates. Florida politics constantly defies traditional political logic, and we must accept that.
We have every tool in our power to defeat the Republicans. We just need to decide if we want to recruit “vote getters”, or recruit “activists”.