This summer may be remembered not only for a blue moon and the welcome end to a bitter presidential primary, it may also mark the time America’s century-old political parties went on life support.
At the top of the ticket, both the Florida Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Florida have anointed presidential front-runners who are seen by most voters more negatively than positively. Corporate donors, the bread and butter of the party diet, are circumventing the parties in large numbers by contributing directly to candidates’ committees.
In Florida, the often reliable bellwether for the nation, party membership is steadily eroding as the majority of new voters don’t register with any party and fewer new voters are registering than have in previous presidential years.
Then there are the casualties.
Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, has been targeted for defeat from within by Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old Vermont senator running for president who is the overwhelming favorite of the youth vote. Jeb Bush, Florida GOP’s favorite son, is so disgusted by Donald Trump and his message that he has announced he won’t vote for his party’s nominee. And GOP candidates in Hispanic-rich South Florida are keeping their distance from the front-runner.
With a battleground this bloodied, can political parties be saved?
It’s an uncomfortable question that could have serious implications for future statewide candidates like Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Congresswoman Gwen Graham. Each hopes to run for governor in 2018 relying on a durable, traditional, governing coalition.
But 2016 laid waste to durable traditions as Florida and the nation showed that their allegiance to political parties was over.
“I think we’ve got 20 more years of disruption ahead of us,” predicts Steve Schale, the Democratic consultant who steered Barack Obama’s victory in Florida in 2008. “You’ve got a generation of people who are growing up in a time when traditional organizations are not vital to the world. We have to figure out what do we look like in the next 20 years, and do we even exist?”
The numbers tell just part of the story. Of the 2.1 million new registered voters in Florida since 2012, about 28 percent have registered Republican, 31 percent Democrat and 42 percent registered anything else, according to data analyzed by Associated Industries of Florida.
David Johnson, former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida who worked on Bush’s Right to Rise political committee this election cycle, is among those who say his party has reached an existential crisis.
“The Republican Party is torn apart,” he said, and how it handles Trump’s divisive campaign will be the crucial test. “There is no question in my mind there is a path toward a viable third or fourth party in the future.”
Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Republican consultant, adviser to former Govs. Bush and Bob Martinez and vocal “Never Trump” advocate, agrees. His scenario looks like this: As extremists dominate both parties, old allegiances will fade, allowing for a third party to emerge from the centrist middle.
“We’re not talking about this year or five or six years but, if something doesn’t change, I don’t think it’s unlikely,” he said. “Somehow you’ve got to destroy the myth that has permeated the national level that you don’t win if you’re not crazy enough.”
Somehow you’ve got to destroy the myth that has permeated the national level that you don’t win if you’re not crazy enough.
Mac Stipanovich, Republican consultant
Democratic disagreement has spawned its own disruptions, said Scott Arceneaux, the longtime executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “But we have a more traditional problem than our Republican counterparts — and that is, our disunity problems are a result of a hotly contested primary.”
He admits, however, that voter confusion over how caucuses deliver delegates and how super delegates are picked has created distrust, particularly among Sanders’ supporters, and “forced us to say we have to address this sooner, rather than later.”
“The system that was built 60 years ago for party insiders I don’t think is sustainable in this day and age,” he said. “We have 19th century organizations that were tweaked in the 20th century . . . but essentially remain unchanged.”
In the nation’s most important swing state, trouble has been mounting at the Republican Party of Florida for more than a year.
In January 2015, Gov. Rick Scott abandoned efforts at party building after rank-and-file members refused to re-elect his handpicked party chair, Leslie Dougher, and installed a state legislator, Blaise Ingoglia, instead.
Scott told contributors to donate directly to his “Let’s Get to Work” campaign, rather than go through the party, robbing the party of the opportunity to take a financial cut. The state Senate has also declared mutiny from the RPOF, moving its staff and multimillion-dollar victory fund out of party headquarters.
Now, spending reports show, the RPOF has less than half the $3 million it had to spend at this point in the cycle four years ago. It has twice turned to the Pennsylvania Republican Party for help with its cash flow by obtaining $614,000 in loans, which were paid back from the RPOF’s federal campaign account.
Meanwhile, although Trump has Scott’s endorsement, and a tepid one from former rival U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, he has no Florida ground campaign, no fundraiser, and has yet to hire someone to coordinate the GOP’s get-out-the-vote effort here.
Last week the Republican National Committee joined Trump’s campaign to announce that St. Petersburg developer and veteran fundraiser Mel Sembler and former Bush finance chairman Woody Johnson would be among the veteran fundraisers who would help raise money for Trump on a national level.
“The RPOF has run into an awkward situation where the presumptive nominee has no relationships as a fundraiser because he’s never raised money,” said Johnson, the former RPOF head.
Having Sembler and Woody Johnson “is a good signal to others in the donor community,’’ David Johnson said. “That’s a positive sign, but the lateness makes it more challenging.”
Reached by cellphone, Ingoglia said he did not have time to talk about these issues.
For Dwight Bullard, the state senator from Miami, high school history teacher, and Sanders delegate to the national convention, the arrival of social media has undercut the ability of the party to influence its message.
“For 43 consecutive presidencies leading up to President Obama, you were dealing with a situation where the parties were able to control the policies, retail politicians and smoke-filled rooms,” he said. The internet, and the speed of social media, “means that information, whether it’s fact or not, can be dispersed in real time and can feed the beast.”
The rise of search engines also allowed the public to become their own fact-checker, he said, weakening the ability of the party — and its candidates — to control the message.
He recalls how in 2008, Hillary Clinton’s campaign issued a television ad that used stock footage of a woman and, within hours, she was on social media saying she was voting for Barack Obama.
“These folks are the same ones that are going to use the internet to determine who they vote for regardless of what the party says,” he said. “It’s gut-check time for the parties and the candidates. These voters want you to be honest because they are holding a device in their hands that is the ultimate truth teller.”
Arceneaux, the Democratic Party director, agrees. A century ago parties were the information vehicles for their members, he said, and that remained true through the 1970s and ’80s but changed with the advent of cable news channels, talk radio shows and now the internet and social media, which deliver information to people directly.
“We are no longer the filter through which people get their information,” Arcenaux said. “We have to adapt and do a better job of going to where people are getting their information.”
Parties of the extreme
Contributing to the breakdown of the party has been the rise in ideological extremism.
According to a 2014 research report by the Pew Research Center, Republicans and Democrats today are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades, and the divisions are most evident among those who are the most active in the political process.
The result has had a direct impact on the political process.
“Candidates have become more strident, more willing to say things they don’t believe to get elected right now. Primaries are not fun places,” said Johnson, the GOP consultant.
He recalls the town hall meetings the RPOF conducted in 2009 and “people started acting a way they hadn’t seen before, a real breakdown of civility.”
Johnson believes that as social media has become an outlet for people’s anger, the debate has migrated to the political stage. “When they are angry and they vote, they want someone to make it okay,” he said.
But as the parties have become more extreme, party membership in Florida has been steadily declining. One group that dominates the no-party-affiliated new voters is millennials. More than 43 percent of the 18-34 age group rejected joining any party since 2012, said Ryan Tyson, Associated Industries of Florida’s pollster and data expert. Of the 916,000 millennial voters, 23 percent choose Republican, 32 percent of them choose Democrat and 45 percent choose neither.
“If I’m a Democrat, I’m very concerned about the millennial vote with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket,” Tyson said. “If I’m a Republican, I’m on a stairway to hell with 1 million more voters over age 50 than under age 50.”
While it’s common for 18-year-olds to not choose a party when they first register to vote, the ominous development for the parties is this group not switching and joining a party as they get into college and a career, he said.
But data also shows that while the no-party-affiliated voters have shown their disfavor with the parties by staying away, they have not had a dramatic impact on the results in statewide races in Florida, showing that they split their vote along party lines, said Schale.
“I thought the rise of NPAs would mean a big rise in moderates, but they are just lining up with the party vote as elections are getting tighter,’’ he said.
And, in some cases, the NPAs are even more extreme than the parties.
“NPAs in North Florida are conservatives who think the Republicans sold out,” he said. “The NPA college kids are hyper-liberals who think the Democratic Party has sold out, and Hispanics are NPA because they think neither side is responding to them.”
The conclusion, for many like Stipanovich, is that new factions will emerge — like the Bull Moose Party of 1912. The dissident political faction sprouted from the Republican Party, nominated former President Theodore Roosevelt for president and opposed the entrenched conservatism of the establishment party. (The divided vote allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected and four years later the “Progressive Party” had been absorbed back into the GOP.)
As a vocal advocate of the “Never Trump” movement, Stipanovich believes that Republicans this year are operating on what he calls “muscle memory — Republicans being inclined to vote Republican because they always do.” But if Trump is allowed to erode the message on minimum wage, free trade, abortion and foreign policy, he said, “we won’t know what it means to be a Republican anymore.”
“Should we ever reach the point where there is no commonly accepted message — no palm card on which there are written five things — the leverage of the traditional parties will diminish to nothing,” Stipanovich said.
Schale disagrees that there will ever be a successful third party. Even though party influence may be on the wane, “there’s no path” for a third party to get to 270 electoral votes needed to win, he argues.
Under the U.S. Constitution if there are two or more presidential candidates who divide up the 538 electoral votes and no one gets to 270, the president will be elected by the House of Representatives.
“If people think this election is f---ed up now, wait until Congress decides it,” Schale said, concluding that “the two-party system is here to stay.”
(The last time a president was elected who was not a member of the Republican or Democratic party was Zachary Taylor, elected on the Whig ticket in 1848. Florida gained statehood in 1845, and its support of Taylor is credited with helping him win.)
Meanwhile, Johnson is confident that the RPOF will “hit the reset button” after this election.
“The laws won’t change, so the ability is there to rebuild the structure going forward,” he said. But how it does it will depend on how Trump does.
“If Trump loses a narrow race because of Hispanics, and Democrats turn their ground machine on, you can blame it on Trump,” he said. “If Trump gets wiped out, loses 400 or more electoral college votes, that’s a very different type of reset.”
Mary Ellen Klas: firstname.lastname@example.org and @MaryEllenKlas