Decades ago, Broward County gained fame as a spring break destination in the movie Where the Boys Are.
In the neck-and-neck race for governor between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, it might be called “Where the Democrats are.”
This is where Florida Democrats are pinning their hopes for a governor’s race victory that would end two decades of futility. In a race that is all about turnout, Broward offers Democrats the biggest potential payoff, by far.
Broward takes center stage at 7 p.m. Wednesday when Scott and Crist face off at Broward College in Davie in their second televised debate.
Crist’s burden in Broward is clear: The county is notorious for complacency in off-year elections, leading to low turnout, defeat and finger-pointing among feuding party factions. Broward is a midterm mirage for Democrats as a mountain of votes seems to vanish by Election Day.
This time, hopeful Democrats say, will be different from four years ago, when voter indifference to Alex Sink produced a turnout of 41 percent, well below the state average, and she lost to Scott by 1 percentage point.
Broward wasn’t alone. The turnout in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties was 41, 42 and 48 percent, respectively. If the three counties had voted at the state average of 49 percent, Sink probably would have defeated Scott by almost 250,000 votes statewide, instead of losing by 61,550 votes.
“In presidential years, we have a massive operation here,” said Jacob Smith, 24, Crist’s deputy South Florida field director. “In 2010, I don’t think we spoke to the voters that we needed to.”
This time, 30 paid campaign workers in Broward direct a grass-roots operation with eight field offices, more than any other county. The last office opened in Davie two weeks ago.
“It’s our job to mobilize,” said Candy Hannan of Lauderhill as she phoned voters from the epicenter of Crist’s ground game, a nondescript office in Plantation. “Nobody knows there’s an election.”
Hannan, 51, represents the emerging face of Broward. The adult-education teacher and freelance makeup artist is a native of Jamaica, part of a wave of Caribbean immigrants who settled in the county in recent decades.
Working alongside Hannan is David Hughes, 24, of Land O’Lakes, who worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and now sets up door-to-door canvassing drives.
“We have the voters we need,” Hughes said. “We want this election to look more like 2012 than 2010.”
The Broward that twice delivered huge victory margins to two governors, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, no longer exists.
Many Jewish retirees who filled huge condo complexes in the 1970s and made Broward a bastion of liberalism have died. In their place is a multicultural population of blacks, Hispanics, Haitians and people from throughout the Caribbean.
Broward remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but voters are no longer conveniently clustered in retirement villages, sharing the same card rooms and pool patios.
“We haven’t gotten it done in this county in a long time,” said Seth Platt, a Democratic activist. “It’s a challenge because the makeup of the electorate doesn’t lend itself to easy organization.”
But Broward Democrats say they feel more enthusiasm this year, partly because Crist has been more visible than Sink.
“I see a difference,” said state Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, who attended the Davie field office’s opening, “and Charlie is here.”
Said Dan Reynolds, president of the Broward AFL-CIO: “There was a sense of impending doom in 2010 that I don’t feel this time.”
Across Broward’s suburban landscape, volunteers call voters all day long, urging them to request absentee ballots, while others knock on doors.
Verna Johnson, 60, a retired court clerk, walks evenings in a predominantly black neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale. Her base of operations is a campaign field office on Sistrunk Boulevard that didn’t exist four years ago, she said, because of a weak get-out-the-vote effort in black precincts.
A key part of Crist’s ground game is targeting black voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 but stayed home in 2010. Broward has more than 73,000 voters who fit that description, more than any other county.
If they don’t vote before Nov. 4, said state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, high school student volunteers will track them down, because schools are closed on Election Day in Broward.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, long a leading figure in Broward’s black community, said he wished Crist had chosen an African American running mate, but “I’m all in,” he said. “It’s all about trying to get rid of Rick Scott.”
Getting the attention of uninterested voters isn’t easy in such a transient place. Volunteers may call up to a dozen voters in a row before getting a live voice on the other end.
“It’s frustrating when they don’t answer,” said Joanne Goodwin, who works the phones at a field office in Pompano Beach. But when they do, she said, “People really despise Rick Scott. We’ve just got to get them out to vote, which is always a problem.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com.
Watch the Governor’s Debate
Wednesday night, Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist will take part in the second of three gubernatorial debates. The debate is being held at Broward College in Davie. The Florida Press Association, along with Leadership Florida, are hosting the debate, which airs live on CBS4 from 7 to 8 p.m. and will stream live on CBSMiami.com. A federal judge Tuesday rejected arguments by Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie that he should be allowed to take part in the debate.