After the publication of The American Voter, a few notable political scientists questioned the findings of Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes. The most vocal critic of the Michigan Model might have been V.O. Key, Jr., who was one of the nation’s top political science scholars. Many may know Key from his popular book about southern politics which, while antiquated, is still a good read even today. But at the time of the Michigan Model’s release, Key strongly opposed the psychological model and argued that issues matter. In his book, The Responsible Electorate (1966), which was never finished and published after his death, Key argued that “voters were not fools” and that issues were still an important part of electoral politics. However, the authors of The American Voter were using advanced techniques in methodology and survey research that had yet been tested. Previous scholarship, such as Edward Merriam’s classic look at the lack of voting in Chicago in Non-Voting (1924), as well as Burleson, Lazarsfeld and McPhee’s Voting (1954, commonly known as The Columbia Model, which was tested twice), still kept the research to particular geographic locations. The Michigan Model expanded the research, expanded the way that we look at politics, and realize that issues do not always matter.
But what if issues do matter? What if V.O. Key, Jr., was right? Of course, the concept of issues mattering did not follow Key to his grave. Others took up the fight and argued that issues do play a part in electoral outcomes. One of the most cited studies is Fiorina’s look at retrospective voting in 1981. He argues that voters will look at the past performance of a party to determine if they are the best option for the future. As far as particular issues themselves, Blais et al. (2004) found that issues are important, even more so than economic performance, in Britain, Canada and the United States. However, whether a party has ownership of the issue, or if a particular issue is salient, is another matter altogether. Again, looking at Canada, Belanger and Megiud (2008) conclude that issues can matter, but whether the issues are salient or not becomes a determining factor.
What about in Florida state politics, do issues really matter? In Florida, we see one of the most diverse populations of any state. With this diversity also comes different issues for different voters. One monolithic issue cannot capture every voter. Even within communities, such as the Hispanic community, Cuban interests might not line up particularly well with Puerto Rican interests. Therefore, trying to capture the “winning formula” for Florida in a bottle is quite tricky. Still, even with this being the case, we do see a number of people, particularly in the Democratic Party in Florida, advocating for an ideological shift to both the left and right.
First, let’s talk about the idea of issue ownership. When looking at issue ownership, “voters identify the most credible party proponent of a particular issue and cast their ballots for that issue owner” (Belanger and Megiud 2008, 478). One of the problems that Democrats have in Florida is that they have not been in any sort of position where they have legislative authority, either by introducing legislation or signing in to law or vetoing legislation, over the last seventeen years. Therefore, a party might find it hard to become the owner of an issue when they have yet been able to show that they are competent when it comes to that issue. With the Democratic Party being locked out of nearly every position of power in state politics over these last seventeen years, voters cannot clearly evaluate whether the Democratic Party would be more competent on certain particular issues. As a result, issue ownership in Florida state politics for Democrats has been non-existent. Still, Republicans have seen this blood in the water, and have recently made moves to take ownership of traditionally Democratic issues. If we look at the environment, Republicans continue to say that they are friendly to the environment, and have been able to pass legislation, such as the Florida Forever Act, to make it that Democrats no longer have exclusive ownership on the issue of the environment.
When looking at issue ownership, two things should be noted in the case of Florida. First, as Belanger and Meguid noted, saliency does play a role in whether issues do have an impact. Yes, Florida Democrats might have ownership of particular issues, but if they are not salient, the impact of that ownership will not bear fruit electorally. Second, issue ownership is not a zero-sum game. If the Republicans are seen as incompetent on an issue, this does not necessarily mean that the Democrats, by default, become the owner of that issue. This is where the lack of any legislative or executive experience in the last two decades hurts the Democrats when it comes to issue ownership. Additionally, many of the Democratic legislators in the Florida House and Senate have decided to side with the Republicans when it comes to issues where the Democrats could take owner, such as education. When Democrats work with Republicans, while at the same time the Democrats are in the minority, they surrender issue ownership to the Republicans. Therefore, in an electoral sense, working with the Republicans might do more harm than good. It might play well in a particular district, but it does hurt overall Democratic issue ownership throughout the state.
So, should Democrats make a shift to the left or the right? In regards to a shift to the left, this move could prove disastrous for the Democrats. If we were to look at the concept of the median voter theorem, many of Florida’s voters are probably right in the middle of the bell curve, with maybe a slight move to the right. While the median voter theorem does have its critics (including me) because it can assume that the distribution is evenly spread out from the median on both the left and right, if there is any case where an even distribution is possible it is probably Florida. Therefore, if Florida Democrats moved to the left, they would probably surrender a large chunk of voters in the center. At that point, Florida Democrats would have to decide if the addition turnout on the left will outnumber the possible loss in the middle. Looking at polling data regarding where voters might fall, this move would probably prove to be an electoral landslide for the Republicans. Florida Democrats who have advocated a move to the left have done so as a working theory and have yet to provide any real empirical evidence that backs up their claim. Most of these claims come from what voters on the left want to see rather than what is a winning electoral strategy.
But what about a move to the right? If we look at issue ownership, a move to the right might be a surrender to the Republicans, and Democrats might not be able to own any issues. This move could alienate voters on the left, while not providing any guarantees that there will be gains among moderate voters. However, it could provide gains among moderate voter, but we just don’t know. Basically, a move to the right or center would be a gamble. However, unlike a move to the left which only provides a lose-lose situation for Democrats, a move to the center could be beneficial.
As far as retrospective voting, the answer seems to be quite simple. Without any recent history of governing, whether the Republicans perform poorly previously does not mean that the Democrats are the benefactors. Even in cases like 2010, where the economy is hurting, the Downs (1957) concept of abstaining, which he provided in his economic model for voting, could play. If voters see Alex Sink and Rick Scott as merely the same, then voters will decide that it is not worth their time to vote. This is when a possible move to the left might help. But still, does this mean a loss of centrist voters? Of course, all of these are risky moves. Still, 2010 also shows that Florida voters (or at least voters in midterm election) are able to somewhat differentiate between federal and state issues. In the case of the economy in 2010, I would assume that many voters saw this as a problem caused by the Bush Administration. If that is the case, then the economy might not have played a role in Florida, as it was seen as a federal, not state, issue.
So, a move to the left would hurt, but a move to the right would also not guarantee any type of electoral success. What should Democrats do? As was mentioned in last week’s article, Democrats need to build trust among the electorate. This might be hard since it does not have any legislative or executive powers, but it can start working on cultivating younger politicians to be seen as the trustworthy face of the Democratic Party. If anything, Democrats have a huge (and I mean huge) image problem. They are not seen as a responsible party and, on many occasions seem to surrender to the Republicans. This has led to a lack of issue ownership. Still, I argue that the only way that Democrats can retain issue ownership is by being in a position of control where they can show that they are a responsible governing party. Therefore, Democrats must work on their image first, and continue to argue on valence issues (making the party seem like they are the “best for Florida”). After that, and if electoral success comes, then Democrats can retake issue ownership.