Fred Grimm: Outside cash sours voters in Florida races

08/02/2014 6:20 PM

09/12/2014 7:42 PM

What $200 million buys: a diminished democracy.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated campaign spending limits by corporations and unions in the 2010 Citizens United decision, outside groups have poured $200 million into Florida political campaigns.

The flood of money was chronicled last week by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Responsive Politics, which counted some 170 outside groups that came to meddle in Florida politics — anonymous voices from afar, spending those millions on radio and TV attack ads, on vicious campaign mailers, on annoying robo telephone calls, warning that some candidate or another is a dishonest bum who spits on American values.

The object has become not so much to sell voters on a favored candidate but to pursue a scorched-earth strategy designed to discourage the opposition supporters from showing up on Election Day. It’s about winning by subtraction.

The outside money — often from mysterious, undisclosed sources — comes atop what has been record amounts of spending this year by actual candidates as they rip into one another. But campaign operations controlled by candidates function with some modicum of accountability. Super PACs hardly suffer such niggling inconveniences.

Come primary day, Aug. 26, we’ll be able to measure just how much $200 million worth of nastiness can warp an election. But we’ve already seen indications that Florida is heading toward another dismal turnout by a dispirited electorate. This unrelenting hammering of negative messages, so much of it from anonymous sources, is transforming Floridians into cynics.

Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, told me that this barrage of “scurrilous attack ads” that “give people choices between bad and awful” has become a major factor in the declining voter turnout.

Gans has just completed a study of voter participation in the 25 states that have already held their 2014 primary elections. His findings were brutal. Overall, voter turnout in those 25 states was down 18 percent from the 2010 primaries. Out of 123 million eligible voters, only 18 million bothered. That’s less than 15 percent of the eligible voters. That meant 85 percent of the electorate thought their basic civic duty was not worth the effort.

In 15 of those 25 states, turnout was the lowest ever. Montana had the highest turnout of the 25 states, but that was just 26.3 percent. (Iowa, with 9.7 percent, had the most paltry participation, so far.) Even more discouraging, most of those states, hoping to enhance turnout, have adopted “convenience voting” reforms, such as early, voting, no excuse absentee ballots, voting by mail. Convenience apparently doesn’t much matter when voters have been conditioned to assume that their choices range from abhorrent to repugnant.

While only 22 percent of Florida voters showed up in the 2010 primary, that may come to seem like a grand demonstration of democracy in action compared with what’s coming Aug. 26, after outsiders have beaten the state’s electorate into a disaffected stupor.

Primary elections, particularly in the gerrymandered congressional districts, are often more decisive than the anti-climatic general election in November (on Friday, a Leon County judge ordered the state Legislature to redraw two lopsided districts). Driving down the turnout and discouraging moderate voters essentially allows the angry nutballs on the far ends of the political spectrum to control the elections. “Thanks to the drawing of the lines for congressional and state legislative districts in most states on a partisan basis, the nation has a huge number of one-party districts,” the CSAE reported. “In those districts, the winner of a primary election is the de facto winner of the general election and, with the minuscule number of citizens turning out, it offers the possibility grown to probability that organized interests representing the views of only 3 to 4 percent of the electorate can win those primaries and propel one of their own to office.”

Old fashion notions of compromise and moderation and cooperation, of course, have no currency in primaries that require candidates to woo to the political extremes. Which will translate into more congressional gridlock, more cynicism and even lower voter participation in the future. Only the crazies, the fringe voters who relish the notion of governing as eye-gouging combat, are content.

Gans doesn’t just blame negative campaigning for the ever-shrinking electorate. It’s the fragmented sources of information, the faux news that has taken the place of traditional news sources. And young citizenry disengaged and perpetually distracted by their electronic gadgetry. “I could go on and on.”

Gans worries that folks who neglect this most basic of their civic duties “tend not to participate in other societal useful and involving activities.” His report warned, “As turnout goes down, so does the reservoir of political interest that breeds involvement. Low turnout is more than a set of figures to lament, it is an indicator of deep problems within American democracy.”

But we’ll find out something about ourselves on Aug. 26. If nothing else, we’ll learn what sorry excuse for democracy you get for $200 million.

About Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm

@grimm_fred

Fred Grimm joined the Herald in 1976. Since 1991 he has written a column about crime, politics and life in Broward.

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