Modern elections in Florida are turnout wars. The 24 hour news cycle has ensured that the former wild swings in the electorate are no longer a regular occurrence. As a result ticket-splitting has also grown less common and voters, even so-called moderates are hardened in their voting patterns. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s when many people split their tickets in the state and swung from party to party depending on the candidates and issues of the day. Florida Elections being turnout wars has become more and more obvious over the past decade. Given this reality their are ways for Democrats to react and embrace the types of issues that have motivated Democrats to work hard and turn out to vote for national candidates.
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 should understand that the continued positive poll results in 2012 prove one thing: politics has changed irrevocably and firing up a party’s base is now far more important than appealing to theoretical “swing” voters. Part of the reason “swing” voters played such a role in the 1990s, in retrospect was because voter turnout was significantly lower than it had been in the 1960s and lower than it is today. . 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 and understand why Florida performs so well for national Democrats.