Those who ignore history are condemned to look like Florida Democrats in a midterm election.
Before Tuesday’s Republican drubbing of Democrats at the polls, there were warning signs — lessons that should have been learned or heeded — that were either ignored or downplayed by Democrat Charlie Crist, his campaign or his supporters.
Take, for instance, an August column headlined “Florida Democrats’ biggest problem is ... Florida Democrats,” where I noted how poor primary turnout, especially in South Florida, was a potentially bad sign for Crist.
One Democratic reader told me on Twitter that the column was full of “histrionics.”
Before then, in July, another column noted how the numbers favored Scott: economic indicators, campaign fund-raising figures and the fact that the GOP had a higher percentage of reliable voters than Democrats.
More denial from Democrats flowed.
The same was true earlier still, in March, after Alex Sink (the Democrats’ 2010 candidate for governor) lost a special election for a competitive congressional seat in St. Petersburg. I and other political reporters wondered whether that foreshadowed Democrats’ staying home in a midterm.
No way, said Democratic honchos and activists.
“Special elections are not an indicator of the future,” U.S. Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, said after Sink’s loss.
“Special elections are not predictive, they are instructive.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s Republican blowout across Florida and the nation, it’s clear Israel and his fellow party members didn’t learn much from that “instructive” loss. Israel, though, had the sense to quit his DCCC post.
Multiple factors played into Republicans’ wins over Democrats in Florida and the nation, including the lack of popularity of President Barack Obama. Some of the data are still coming in, but we can still distill about 10 takeaways:
1. Florida isn’t purple. It’s schizophrenic. Most political observers would find few similarities between Obama and Gov. Rick Scott. But Florida voters have decided to stay stubbornly and unpredictably purple by electing both the Democratic blue and the Republican red candidates. Twice each.
2. Obama’s election machine without Obama is not a machine. Crist’s campaign was run and advised by former Obama campaign hands. They talked about a “data-driven campaign,” etc. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Spreadsheets don’t win elections. Crist, who lost by 1.1 percentage points (64,267 votes as of Sunday’s latest count) did about as well against Scott as Sink did. So, for the second time in a row, Obama won a presidential election in Florida, Democrats talked a good game about organizing, and then they got outplayed by Scott and the Republican Party of Florida.
3. Don't bash the polling just yet. While the polling in other races in some other parts of the country appeared to generally get it wrong, the public polling in Florida was generally right. Almost all polls in the final month showed a tied race. Some polls showed Scott with a lead inside the error margin. Others showed Crist with an inside-the-error-margin lead. The race was decided by 1.1 percentage points. It was a coin-toss election, just as the polls indicated. Only the polling of the Libertarian candidate was off, but probably because people changed their minds (see No. 5).
4. TV ads are still king in Florida. In the modern election world, there are any number of consultants and experts hawking the latest sophisticated research showing campaigns how to get an edge in social media or on-the-ground organizing. But the midterms showed that TV ads are still king. When Scott started his heavy TV advertising in March, Crist’s favorable ratings started to nosedive in the polls. The Crist campaign’s internal poll tracking showed Scott’s last-week ad buys made a difference, too. Scott outspent Crist at least $70 million to $34 million on TV. So it ain’t just what ya say in Florida that matters, it’s what ya say in 30-second spots in the 10 major media markets that really counts.
5. Libertarians need to build a party instead of a Twitter troll army. Give credit to supporters of Libertarian Adrian Wyllie: They know how to raise a ruckus on Twitter and Facebook to demand more coverage of their candidates. Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party of Florida accounts for 0.2 percent of the voter rolls and Libertarians cast only 0.16 percent of the absentee ballots in Florida. Oh, and the polling showing Wyllie would get as much as 13 percent of the vote? Nowhere close. He got 3.75 percent — an indication that many might have liked the third-party candidate but felt it would be a wasted vote. And thus it often is with polling third-party candidates in tight races. In the end, building a political party and credible campaign takes money and organization — not trolling on social media.
6. Vote early or die. Florida doesn’t have a single Election Day. It has Election Days. They start about a month before the final Tuesday, when absentee vote-by-mail ballots are sent out. Then, for a period that usually ends on the Sunday before Election Tuesday, in-person early voting is allowed at certain super-polling sites. Obama’s campaign in 2012 made sure, thanks to in-person early voting, to have a lead over Republican Mitt Romney in pre-Election Day ballots cast by Democrats. Scott, banking Republican ballots early, made sure to do the same with Crist. Both Obama and Scott won by small margins.
7. Medical marijuana is meh for Democrats. Young people, who tend to vote Democrat, are so in favor of marijuana that they’ll flock to the polls, even if it means voting for medical marijuana. And once they do, it will help the Democrat. That was the conventional wisdom. It appears after Tuesday’s election, that this was flat-out wrong. Undoubtedly, some voters showed up at the polls to approve the constitutional amendment, which failed with nearly 58 percent of the vote (it needed 60 percent to pass). Anecdotally speaking, it appears young people stayed home. And while medical marijuana probably helped drive some turnout, it didn’t appreciably help Crist. He got 600,000 fewer votes than the amendment while Scott got 500,000 fewer votes. So more people might have voted for pot and Scott.
8. The Republican Party is a cult of policy compared to the Democrats’ cult of personality. Democrats want someone who thrills them, an Obama. Orthodoxy isn’t enough. Crist talked about bread-and-butter Democratic issues — a minimum-wage increase and Medicaid expansion — and it didn’t drive Democratic turnout. Compare that to Scott, who admits he’s not telegenic, but seldom strayed far from ideological orthodoxy: tax cuts, school-choice vouchers, etc. Republicans turned out in force. Democrats stayed home. No Obama, no passion.
9. Florida Democrats’ greatest strength in a presidential year is a weakness in midterms. It appears that minority voters disproportionately stayed home this midterm. They almost always do. That particularly hurts Democrats because about 43 percent of the party’s registered voters are black or Hispanic, who together account for 28 percent of all registered Florida voters. In presidential election years, however, minorities tend to flock to the polls, giving the party a boost, especially when it has a minority candidate at the head of the ticket. But as noted up top and previously, Democrats have themselves to blame for not showing up in midterms. After all five gubernatorial losses since 1998, it’s tough to just blame the candidates — especially when the state’s Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 455,000 registered voters.
10. Florida Republicans’ greatest strength in a midterm year is a weakness in presidential years. Especially after Obama’s 2012 win, there was much hand-wringing about “demographic collapse” for the GOP, which is becoming whiter as the state and nation become blacker or browner. The Florida GOP is 84 percent non-Hispanic white, though whites comprise 64 percent of the overall voter rolls. In midterm elections, it seems this isn’t a problem. Whites are the most likely to show at the polls. Guess who wins in a heavily white election year? The party of whites.