Although the Florida governor’s race is 20 months away, there already are at least six Democrats and Republicans flirting with the idea of being a candidate. Several have already formally announced, and others will shortly follow. Traditionally, political insiders such as campaign contributors, political reporters, elected officials, and party activists have used the same metrics to handicap the likely campaign winners.
But in 2008, Barack Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton turned conventional wisdom on its head. Clinton was seen as the inevitable Democratic nominee. She had served for eight years as first lady to President Bill Clinton, had served for almost five years as a U.S. senator from New York, and had built a solid resume of achievements as a Democrat. These positions gave Clinton an enormous advantage in three traditional handicapping metrics: name identification, fundraising ability, and a record of accomplishment. By comparison, Barack Obama had been on the national stage for a mere three years, and legislatively had accomplished little. Yet Obama defeated Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Very few political pundits called that one correctly at the beginning of the election cycle.
Fast forward to 2016.
In the Democratic presidential primaries, political prognosticators didn’t give Sen. Bernie Sanders much of a chance, but he ultimately defeated Clinton in 22 states and raised the bulk of his eye-popping $230 million campaign war chest through the internet.
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On the Republican side, eight GOP governors jumped into the race for president among other elected officials. Jeb Bush raised more than $150 million and had high name recognition. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio raised much more money than Donald Trump. Practically all the candidates had some level of achievement as elected officials. And while Trump did have name identification, he had never held political office, had no record of public service, and had a hard time raising big money. Accordingly, he was dismissed for much of the primary campaign by the political cognoscenti. And yet, Trump not only defeated those eight Republican governors, he went on to beat another better financed and better known candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Each of these races was unique; however, there is a common theme that connects Obama’s and Trump’s electoral successes. They were both outsiders to the presidential campaign process and they both harnessed the power of the internet to help propel their candidacies.
So, what does this tell us about the 2018 statewide elections in Florida?
First, having a record of achievement as an elected official isn’t what it used to be in helping a candidate win an election. “Experience” was once a valued trait in a candidate. Now it is almost an epithet.
Second, the ability to raise funds from large donations is neutralized if not overcome by the ability to raise funds online via small donations. Having a large network of big-dollar contributors was once an intimidating asset. Now it is more intimidating to have a large network of small-dollar online donors or a large following on Twitter or Facebook.
Third, the ability to spend mega-money on television is not as powerful as it used to be. Trump spent less money on Florida television ads than Bernie Sanders did, and still beat Hillary Clinton for Florida’s 29 electoral votes. The micro-media of the internet equalizes the power of the mass media of television.
Finally, in this new age we may have to change our perception about how candidates must present themselves to be successful. Sanders and Trump did not take off because they were polished and smooth.
They didn’t have an “it” factor in the conventional sense. However, they had in spades what it took to erupt social media and disrupt conventional political thinking.
As we watch Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial candidates step into the ring in the coming months, we will be keeping these factors in mind, and ignoring the conventional benchmarks that have proved unreliable predictors of electoral success in recent elections.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners. Justin Sayfie is an attorney and government relations consultant for Ballard Partners and writes the Sayfie Review.