Why Does the Florida Democratic Party lack a field presence? An age-old question that lacks a real answer. For years Tallahassee-based staff and consultants have made assessments about elections and campaigns without really rolling up their sleeves and spending time in the field. While this is not an indictment of all FDP staff or retained consultants, it is a trend that began in the late 1990s and continued more or less until today.
In 2002, I was personally recruited by a number of DEC’s in Central Florida who had the budget to have field operations directed on the ground and properly coordinated with the state party. While the FDP accepted this demand and ultimately listed me as the “field coordinator” on official correspondence, little was committed in the way of resources; neither financial or people to work on stimulating Democratic turnout. It serves the Democrats well to have a true field office (not merely coordinated campaigns which focus on the top of the ticket) that worry exclusively about local elections and building a Farm Team- comprised of local officials and state legislators from an area.
In a reapportionment year the need for turnout efforts in legislative races are more critical than in regular election cycles. Much like 2002, this election cycle provides a unique opportunity to win several seats that have fallen into Republican hands as sitting GOP officeholders need to familiarize themselves with new terrain and new voters. But much like in 2002, the party either has no resources, or has chosen not to allocate them to a comprehensive field effort. Relying on the Coordinated Campaign is good and well in some areas, but also a mistake in other areas, particularly those that do not receive people resources from the decision makers. While it is my experience that many local DEC’s are mismanaged, others have tried to build a useful infrastructure but the lack of coordination with neighboring counties or the state party has doomed them.
Many Tallahassee-based lobbyists and political operatives have overstated the importance of north Florida counties in the possible revival of the party. This is a common theme on our blog-site. While it is true that the leakage of legislative seats in the Big Bend and Panhandle areas has been dramatic, little can be done realistically to change the fortunes in that region. More importantly, that region does not have enough voters to really turn the tables in statewide elections or in tipping the legislative balance of power. Even if the Democrats carried every county between the Suwanee and Apalachicola Rivers, every election the GOP has won for statewide office since 2000 they still would have won, including Alex Sink’s narrow defeat in the 2010 Governor’s Race.
We have also heard from the party’s southeast Florida base that maximizing turnout in Broward and Palm Beach Counties would make all the difference statewide. While there is certainly much truth to the theory that more Democratic votes can be squeezed out of these two liberal metropolitan counties, both are already performing very well for Democrats and basing any statewide strategy around the two counties is difficult. What is important is that the party structures in both counties become more organized and less beset by factionalism. More importantly, Democratic candidates and the FDP cannot take the area for granted: just showing up for fundraisers without actually meeting and turning out voters.
But the most important counties in the state that need a real field presence are between Ocala and Stuart on both coasts. These counties have been forgotten by many Democrats except in spots, and will provide the margins for any meaningful Democratic revival in the state.
Party building requires, like any building, a solid foundation. In politics foundations are built of people – be they registered voters, party activists, eager candidates or motivated donors. Building the foundation necessary to begin and sustain a long-term resurgence of the Democratic Party requires creating a new backbone at the local level of committed activists, potential candidates, and major fund-raisers.
With this core group of believers who share core values, while at the same time incorporating that most democratic of notions inclusiveness, we can begin to build the essential “Farm Team” of local elected officials, and lay the groundwork for a successful campaign operation statewide outside of the capitol. The Florida Democratic Party needs to make an effort to establish real field offices in central Florida (and by central Florida I do not mean just Orlando) as well as making sure they pay attention to voters in southeast Florida. The fact that the FDP has lacked any real field presence when compared to the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) has been apparent for well over a decade but becomes more and more noticeable as time goes on.