A few hours ago, I finished watching the 1981 documentary Vernon, Florida. Basically, I wanted to use it to understand the mind of the north Florida voter. As someone that lives in rural Illinois right now (just as rural as Vernon), I wanted to see if it was the same as here. Yep, it was.
I was sitting with my mother watching the movie and told her “there are some Florida Democrats that think we should target towns like Vernon.” She looked at me, confused, and said “who the hell would want to do that. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.” Of course, I agreed with her.
In the past I have said that I have been bless (in a political sense) of having a family that covers nearly every political, social and economic background. I know which ones vote. I know which ones don’t. And I know why that is the case. In fact, the electorate in Florida that I am the least familiar with are south Florida Jewish voters, and they are the backbone of our party.
After watching Vernon, Florida and then thinking about my lack of knowledge of the Jewish voter, it hit me…are Florida’s political consultants clueless?
When a candidate runs for statewide office, they need to pick someone that has a grasp of how the state thinks. No, not the knowledge of looking at polling data and election results and basing their conclusions on that. But a person that can actually clear their heads, step out of their own minds, go into the minds of the voter they are trying to examine and understand their thought process and conclusions.
Unfortunately in politics, it is the other way around. Political analysis is the craze, and looking at data and polling is how most political scientists and consultants come up with their conclusions. There is a huge flaw in the political world in thinking that elections are analytic and statistical. While statistics can help us understand voting trends and other election data, it doesn’t tell us why the voters vote the way that they do. Basically, understanding the electorate is purely psychological and sociological. This is the biggest flaw of political consultants.
But in many cases, especially in Florida, it isn’t their fault. Florida is a very diverse state and there are many different groups of people in a number of geographical locations. What one political consultant knows, another one might have a total lack of understanding. That is why winning in Florida, even when you think you have a slam dunk candidate, is a hard thing to do.
For example, let’s take Utah. This is a pretty easy state to figure out. Salt Lake City (not county, just the city) and Park City are very liberal. Carbon County and some of the suburbs bordering Salt Lake City are more moderate. The rest of the state is conservative and Republican. That is pretty much it. The electorate is nearly the same throughout the state. A St. George conservative has the same values and political ideas as a conservative in liberal Salt Lake City. It’s simple.
In Florida, that isn’t the case. We could do a whole series of blogs about localism in Florida, as V.O. Key Jr. calls it. But we won’t. We can just agree that there are different values throughout the state, and political consultants in the state fail to realize that.
When talking about this “we have to target north Florida” discussion, I try to bring a bit of understanding to all sides. Of course, the reason I state we shouldn’t target this region is purely because the numbers aren’t there. But even so, I feel that there is a total lack of understanding by my south and central Florida friends regarding this area. On the flip side, for those in the north that say we do need to target their region, they have a lack of what is going on south of Ocala. Basically, there is a psychological disconnect between Democrats throughout the entire state. That is why we have the problems that we do.
This brings me back to the movie Vernon, Florida. If I were to sit a group of south Floridians in a room and have them watch the movie, they would laugh their asses off (note: it is not a comedy, but a documentary about “a day in the life” of a Vernon resident). If I then filled that room with people from other rural north Florida counties, they wouldn’t laugh, but would actually relate. Then we can flip the roles, and show a Jewish wedding. A south Florida person could totally relate to the breaking of the wine glass, saying “mazel tov” and then doing the dance with the chair. The north Floridian would look at that and ask what the hell was going on. Most central Floridians wouldn’t understand either of them.
The problem with political consulting in Florida is that a consultant brings their own set a values and ideas to the table when advising their candidates. If they are from Palm Beach County, they will run things the south Florida way. If they are from Tallahassee, they will say “let’s target Vernon, Florida”. Nobody out there really looks at the entire state and tries to figure out what to do.
The lack of not understanding the sociological aspect of different regions of Florida will always be any political consultant’s downfall. Being a “numbers” person is only half of the battle. Knowing the way people think is the other half of that battle. Again, I have a very diverse family background (mom’s side of the family are Slovak immigrants from Chicago, dad’s side are multi-generational southerners from Tishomingo County, MS). I can walk into a Polish deli on Division Street in Chicago as easily as I can walk into Rita’s Restaurant in Dennis, MS. True, I might get the “stare” at Rita’s, but I can totally fit into the mindset of the people.
There is one way that political consultants try to hide the fact that they can’t read the voter’s mind, and that is by using “issues”. With the exception of some highly educated districts, most voters in Florida don’t know one state issue from the next. This is why I have always advocated more extensive use of push polls in local election (even if that sounds bad). Ask your average Florida voter while leaving the polls how his or her state representative voted on a certain issue and they will more than likely have no clue. On the other hand, they just voted for or against that candidate.
We always talk about issues in this “West Wing” type of way, where we try to pit our minds against one another to see who can come up with the most cleaver remark. And when all is said and done, issues play a very small role in a campaign.
One example is the 2008 Presidential Election. Barack Obama probable ran the least issue oriented campaign and still won the election. Ask the average Obama supporter about his health care plan…not a clue. In fact, musician Will.I.Am is the perfect example of what I am talking about. When asked what issues of Obama he supported, he couldn’t name one. The rock star hype is what got him his support.
On the other hand, who voted against Obama? Many people voted for McCain for one reason or another. But one of the biggest reasons was race. I talked to a number of my cousins in Mississippi and they specifically said that they voted for McCain because they wouldn’t vote for a black man. So if you don’t think race was a factor, you are wrong. This is just a fact of political campaigning.
So, back to issues. Most political consultants want to think it is about issues, but it isn’t (as was just shown in the 2008 example). The “issues button” that consultants press seem to be because of their total lack of sociological understanding of the electorate. They are already pre-programmed to say “if they are conservative, they are conservative on all issues.” The same goes for the liberals as well.
Let’s examine this a little further. My grandmother was from Belmont, Mississippi. She was pro-life. She was socially conservative. Therefore, if a political consultant were to target her using their conventional logic, they would talk about their pro-life stance and other issues of social conservatism.
What they didn’t know is that she was also strongly anti-big business. And in her mind, the big business issue trumped the pro-life issue. In fact, this is the case in many southern states and regions. Consultants just assume that if someone is from a conservative region, they are anti-tax. But if one candidate ran only on pro-life and another ran on anti-big business in a southern district, it would be close, with the anti-big business guy winning by a hair.
But there is another flaw about campaigning on “issues”, and that the assumption that the voters are informed on the issues. If a consultant is running an issues-oriented campaign in a district where the voters are very loosely or not at all attached to the issues (which is the case in most Florida districts), that campaign would usually fail. In this case, as is the case with many local Florida elections, it is about image and perception.
Voter’s lack of connection to issues is one major issue. The other major issue is that voters can be entirely misinformed on the issues. And trust me, there are more of those than you think. For example, I knew a guy that said that since the minimum wage increase was passed during the Jeb Bush Administration, that Jeb supported the increase of the minimum wage, thus he was voting for him. This guy didn’t understand the referendum method. He also didn’t know that Bush strongly opposed the measure. Still, on Election Day, he was totally convinced that Republicans supported the minimum wage and Democrats didn’t. And I have more than one story like this…it is a common problem.
Most political consultants haven’t lived in the “real world”. This real world experience helps expand the understanding of voters. Instead, most live in a cookie-cutter society, especially on the Democratic side.
Therefore, a campaign running on “issues” is an extremely flawed plan, because the campaign cannot be assured that “D” means liberal, if a rural voter means conservative, if the voter is informed at all, etc… It is all guess work. That is why understanding the thought process of the voter is much more important.
Once our political consultants can master the skill of understanding the psyche of the political mind, on all levels and in every political region, then they will be able to master elections.