Democrats Can Learn From Polk County Voters

Polk County, the home to so many of the state’s most prominent public figures of the past half century is arguably a county that best represents Florida outside the two extreme corners of the state. Florida, in many ways, is a state of mind.  Those who live in southeast Florida or the western Panhandle are less Floridians on a whole than those living in between those two regions. “Florida,” which is defined by a population of those identifying themselves as Floridians and those who culturally fit in our state runs from Alligator Point to Marco Island on one coast and Fernandina Beach to Stuart on the other coast.
The county that best exemplifies “Florida” is Polk County. Agriculture, particularly citrus, has made Polk’s economy vibrant for years, and the counties geographic features are unique to Florida. The population of Polk, which is over half a million, embodies Florida traditions and the trends in the rest of the state better than any other place. The county has a representative mixture of aggies, low-income workers, lawyers, insurance salesman, college professors, middle class commuters (who drive to Tampa or Orlando for work), African-Americans and Hispanics. Polk features a legitimately large city in Lakeland, a medium sized one in Winter Haven and lots of smaller towns, such as Lake Wales and Haines City, that interact economically with their neighbors, rural areas and the closet major metropolitan area (be it Tampa or Orlando).  The other county which exemplifies the real “Florida” is Volusia and we will get into the more Democratic bellwether next week.
It is no accident that more strong state level leaders have come from Polk County than any other place, including major population centers. Spessard Holland and Lawton Chiles both served in the US Senate and as Governor. Legislative leaders like Curtis Peterson, Bob Crawford and Rick Dantzler grasped the rest of Florida from their Polk base better than most of their contemporaries. Since the Republican takeover of the Legislature, Lakeland’s Paula Dockery and J.D. Alexander have been legislative leaders of remarkable stature. Dockery, has been arguably the best Senator over the past decade in either party, someone whose votes and public statements reflect a conscience and understanding of the entire state. Alexander, whose family is the most powerful in the state, emerged as responsible custodian of the state budget until his final term when local considerations took front and center. Alexander’s crusade to create a 12th state university out of USF’s Lakeland campus will certainly make his legacy murkier but should not take away completely from his prior service.
Polk’s Congressman Adam Putnam in 2006 became the highest ranking Floridian ever in US House partisan leadership when he became the House Republican Conference Chairman. In 2010 he was elected in a landslide as Commissioner of Agriculture against Democrat Scott Maddox. Putnam has the potential to be a dominant figure in the politics of the state for the next 25 years, much like several former Polk County natives. Charles Canaday, Putnam’s predecessor in Congress, is now the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
Sandwiched between Orlando and Tampa, the county is representative of what Florida has become: a combination of sleepy southern towns, agriculture, vibrant suburban communities and a growing Hispanic population. Democrats have largely ceded the county since the 1990s despite a number of young exciting Democrats at the time which included Lori Edwards, Tom Mims, Dean Saunders and Joe Tedder. If the Democrats are truly serious about becoming a competitive statewide party in Florida, they need to re-engage Polk County quickly. The county is not as conservative as many southeast Florida Democrats perceive it to be nor do the issues and ideas that work in Big Bend region where Democrats can still run strong work here either. Talking about local issues and why a strong economic platform which involves government can work in this county. Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s proved that without sacrificing and compromising their beliefs, and while still clearly delineating differences with the Republicans.
If the Democrats can understand the Polk County voter, they can begin to really understand the state of Florida. It is no coincidence that as Polk County has become more Republican, the Democrats have lost 15 of the past 16 statewide elections where Bill Nelson were not the Democratic nominee. While Polk alone will not reverse that trend, understanding what it takes to be competitive (not necessarily always winning) in Polk can change the fortunes for the party throughout the state.
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15 thoughts on “Democrats Can Learn From Polk County Voters

  1. Democrats can also learn a great deal if their statewide candidates looked more like the party that nominated them. For example, I am positive Robert Wexler or Ted Deutch could be strong statewide candidates running on the party platform if given the chance. But the Democrats continue to follow the advice here and in other places touted by “experts” that we must nominate candidates from the Tampa or Orlando areas.

    As for Lawton Chiles he allowed the trial lawyers too much control over the party and generally he and MacKay were thought of towards the end as too anti-business. His administration also turned the police and firefighter unions away from the Democrats permanently. He also aligned himself with the wrong people in Palm Beach and Boca.

    I loved Chiles but this site eulogizes him all too often and then also does not blame him for any of the party failures that came after.

  2. I have heard that the reason for the university ‘upgrade’ is to support the plan/need for a new N/S road through the family’s properties to the west of Highlands County. Theoretically, it could connect the college to Ave Maria, FL (or at least provide a hurricane escape route northward).

  3. Yes the heartland parkway which by the way will be a subject of an article I’m working on fig next week. In short the highway would cut from Collier County to Polk running through rural areas. It would be a 110 mile long expressway. Much of it runs through environmentally sensitive areas. Jeb Bush was a big supporter of the road, but Crist killed it. When Scott became Governor, Alexander convinced him to support it. Much of the highway would go through Alexander’s family lands, but then again they’ve owned much of the state so that’s nothing unusual. What is of concern is that it could stimulate sprawl and affect the environment. At the same time it could be a very useful evacuation route and reduce congestion in I-75. I drive from Fort Lauderdale to the Tampa Bay area at least once a month and the drive has become worse and worse as SW Florida has grown eastward engulfing the highway.

    Anyhow, I’ll have a full piece on this issue next week.

  4. Lakeland is a right wing conservative bastion. We have no chance there. It is like Pensacola or Jacksonville in terms of attitude even if the demographics are different and more representative of the state. Look at the nature of people elected from there since the late 90s.

  5. Actually Polk County still has far more white voters that support Dems up and down the ticket than either Jacksonville or west Florida/Pensacola. Republican presidential and US Senate candidates always win the county but never break 60%. A core of white dens remains in and around Lakeland, Auburndale and Winter Haven. True most whites are Republicans, but unlike Jacksonville and West Florida where the numbers are roughly 85-15 or even 90-10 in voter preference for Republicans among white voters, in Polk it is more like 65-35. Clusters of white Democrats in voter preference not just registration remain in the county.

  6. I’ve heard the term”Polk Panhandle” used to describe the county but that’s largely a stereotype of south Floridans or Tallahassee based operatives that don’t spend any time traveling the state. Polk and the other interior counties with decent populations like Highlands, Lake and Sumter are very different than the Panhandle in multiple ways. Smaller interior counties like Hendry, DeSoto, Hardee and Okeechobee are more like the panhandle but still have some important distinctions that make them different overall.

  7. Good piece. I have noted previously how elections in Polk aren’t runaways. Even in a heavily Republican year, Lori Edwards ran much stronger v. Ross than two incumbents Kosmas and Grayson ran in their districts. Legislative races are also like 60-40 not much worse than that so it’s an area we can work on and maybe achieve some success.

  8. Excellent piece. These types of areas are ripe for us to push back in the state. Polk has changed A LOT recently. More bedroom type communities and more and more hispanics in the Haines City and Four Corners areas that are working in the Orlando Hospitality industry. Great SEIU and Dem Party targets!

  9. I would like to what Morning Star is smoking ? Neither Wexler or Ted could win a state wide seat. Wexler especially. His act would not play across the state. Dave Aronberg is much more moderate and could not win a statewide race. By and large politicians from the south region are not embraced by the rest of the state.
    Until we get rid of all the political backbiting, corruption, and the inside good old boy system here in Palm Beach County (Burt,Weiss, etc.) things will not improve and good candidates will not get a chance to run.

  10. On this point I think it is less ideology and more that most South Florida Democrats are bi-products of corrupt cronyism and a political machine.

    Dan Gelber who isn’t part of that sort of thing destroyed Aronberg in the primary outside Palm Beach.

  11. Polk County is simply a county you drive fast through on I-4 when traveling between Tampa and Orlando. That is all it is. Total over analysis here.

  12. The idea of either of them running statewide is a laughable. Aronberg was trounced by a more liberal candidate who was also from southeast Florida and Jewish in the Dem primary. This says a great deal about the political savvy of some of the Palm Beach leadership. Aronberg himself is a very attractive candidate but he failed to make the impact he needed in that race, and Palm Beach leaders cannot affect primaries beyond their own area.

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