Two new polls were released this week which showed Mitt Romney creeping ever so slightly ahead of President Obama in the state of Florida. Much of the analysis of this Romney “surge” has focused around swing voters, a myth invented by pollsters in the 1980s, further promoted in the 1990s, and one which should have been firmly repudiated by the 2004 and 2008 election results. The reality is that Florida does not have that many “swing” voters (mind you there are a few but not many) but elections in the state are turnout wars: a battle between the two parties to turn out their base. I-4 corridor counties in particular are vulnerable to turnout spikes based on each party’s level of excitement or enthusiasm in the area.
On election day 2004, speculation nationally was that John Kerry would win Florida. But when the first precincts from Pinellas and Pasco Counties came in that night, I knew the election was over. The GOP had wisely run a conservative campaign that elites may have claimed polarized the electorate, but it appealed to their base and turned them out. The so-called “swing” voters rejected Bush, yet he still won Florida by a relatively healthy margin. In 2008 we saw very much the same thing happen but it was the Democrats who fired up their base and turned out voters that had been absent in 2004. In 3 of the last 4 midterm elections Florida has produced big Republican gains but much of that had to do with declining Democratic turnout and activism rather than the defection of “swing” voters. For example, in 2002 I would strongly suggest Democrats who were dissatisfied with the nomination of the moderate Bill McBride stayed home and gave the GOP their largest post-Reconstruction Governor’s race victory margin.
In 2002 traditionally liberal southeast Floridians either stayed home or did not work as enthusiastically to turn out the vote as they did in 2000, 2006 and 2008, which were good Democratic years in the state. The Republican success of 2002, 2004 and 2010 was largely due to a spike in turnout and reconnection with the party’s base voters. In the I-4 corridor, the Democratic party infrastructure is so poor or fragmented in some places that in bad years the turnout suffers beyond recognition.
To the extent that swing voters exist in Florida, they vote largely based on personality and other non-issue related reasons. Democrats who continue to advocate a more moderate approach to issues do not understand Florida’s electorate. While moderation may work in suburbs of large Northern and Midwestern cities, or in states where the electorate is overwhelmingly conservative, Florida’s potential Democratic electorate is often concerned about issues such as environmental protection, gun control, and other social issues. The days when Florida voters were obsessed with crime and taxes are long gone, but some Democrats seem to believe the way back to a majority status in the state is to embrace yesterday’s issues.
Florida’s Democrats could advocate a certain brand of economic populism that would appeal to the base of the party while encouraging other Democratically-inclined voters to turn out. But what we have witnessed instead is a party that has promoted candidates tied to the insurance industry, banking sector, and those who oppose strong environmental regulations. Bill Clinton won Florida in 1996 by running aggressively on gun control and environmental protection. Al Gore’s popular economic message resonated with Florida voters in 2000, and Barack Obama, perceived (wrongly perhaps) to be a liberal, carried the state in 2008.
Florida’s Democrats have been wrong so many times about “swing” voters. We were told in 1998 to nominate Rick Dantzler because Buddy MacKay was too liberal. In 2002, we were told that Buddy MacKay’s liberalism gave us Jeb Bush and we needed to nominate a moderate. Janet Reno, who generated enthusiasm among the most activists was rejected for the traditional institutional Democrat, Bill McBride. What ensued was a Republican landslide. In 2004 Betty Castor occupied the middle ground against Mel Martinez who, despite a moderate record as Orange County Chairman (County Mayor), decided to run to the hard right. Castor lost. In 2010 moderate Alex Sink, the wife of McBride, questioned President Obama’s Health Care plan, positioned herself to the right of Governor Charlie Crist on insurance and banking and tried to appeal to “swing voters” against a pathetically weak GOP nominee. Sink, like McBride and Castor, was defeated.
The Democrats need to learn the realities of the Florida electorate. Moderate/swing voters are minimal in numbers and efforts to appeal to them are offset by losing potential voters or workers on the left. The Democrats have botched up repeatedly over the past decade. As the field for 2014 statewide elections begins to form, let us hope Florida’s Democrats remember the lessons of recent history.