Are Florida’s political consultants clueless?

A look into the mind of North Floridians.

A few hours ago, I finished watching the 1981 documentary Vernon, Florida. Basically, I wanted to use it to understand the mind of the north Florida voter. As someone that lives in rural Illinois right now (just as rural as Vernon), I wanted to see if it was the same as here. Yep, it was.

I was sitting with my mother watching the movie and told her “there are some Florida Democrats that think we should target towns like Vernon.” She looked at me, confused, and said “who the hell would want to do that. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.” Of course, I agreed with her.

In the past I have said that I have been bless (in a political sense) of having a family that covers nearly every political, social and economic background. I know which ones vote. I know which ones don’t. And I know why that is the case. In fact, the electorate in Florida that I am the least familiar with are south Florida Jewish voters, and they are the backbone of our party.

After watching Vernon, Florida and then thinking about my lack of knowledge of the Jewish voter, it hit me…are Florida’s political consultants clueless?

When a candidate runs for statewide office, they need to pick someone that has a  grasp of how the state thinks. No, not the knowledge of looking at polling data and election results and basing their conclusions on that. But a person that can actually clear their heads, step out of their own minds, go into the minds of the voter they are trying to examine and understand their thought process and conclusions.

Unfortunately in politics, it is the other way around. Political analysis is the craze, and looking at data and polling is how most political scientists and consultants come up with their conclusions. There is a huge flaw in the political world in thinking that elections are analytic and statistical. While statistics can help us understand voting trends and other election data, it doesn’t tell us why the voters vote the way that they do. Basically, understanding the electorate is purely psychological and sociological. This is the biggest flaw of political consultants.

But in many cases, especially in Florida, it isn’t their fault. Florida is a very diverse state and there are many different groups of people in a number of geographical locations. What one political consultant knows, another one might have a total lack of understanding. That is why winning in Florida, even when you think you have a slam dunk candidate, is a hard thing to do.

For example, let’s take Utah. This is a pretty easy state to figure out. Salt Lake City (not county, just the city) and Park City are very liberal. Carbon County and some of the suburbs bordering Salt Lake City are more moderate. The rest of the state is conservative and Republican. That is pretty much it. The electorate is nearly the same throughout the state. A St. George conservative has the same values and political ideas as a conservative in liberal Salt Lake City. It’s simple.

In Florida, that isn’t the case. We could do a whole series of blogs about localism in Florida, as V.O. Key Jr. calls it. But we won’t. We can just agree that there are different values throughout the state, and political consultants in the state fail to realize that.

When talking about this “we have to target north Florida” discussion, I try to bring a bit of understanding to all sides. Of course, the reason I state we shouldn’t target this region is purely because the numbers aren’t there. But even so, I feel that there is a total lack of understanding by my south and central Florida friends regarding this area. On the flip side, for those in the north that say we do need to target their region, they have a lack of what is going on south of Ocala. Basically, there is a psychological disconnect between Democrats throughout the entire state. That is why we have the problems that we do.

This brings me back to the movie Vernon, Florida. If I were to sit a group of south Floridians in a room and have them watch the movie, they would laugh their asses off (note: it is not a comedy, but a documentary about “a day in the life” of a Vernon resident). If I then filled that room with people from other rural north Florida counties, they wouldn’t laugh, but would actually relate. Then we can flip the roles, and show a Jewish wedding. A south Florida person could totally relate to the breaking of the wine glass, saying “mazel tov” and then doing the dance with the chair. The north Floridian would look at that and ask what the hell was going on. Most central Floridians wouldn’t understand either of them.

The problem with political consulting in Florida is that a consultant brings their own set a values and ideas to the table when advising their candidates. If they are from Palm Beach County, they will run things the south Florida way. If they are from Tallahassee, they will say “let’s target Vernon, Florida”. Nobody out there really looks at the entire state and tries to figure out what to do.

The lack of not understanding the sociological aspect of different regions of Florida will always be any political consultant’s downfall. Being a “numbers” person is only half of the battle. Knowing the way people think is the other half of that battle. Again, I have a very diverse family background (mom’s side of the family are Slovak immigrants from Chicago, dad’s side are multi-generational southerners from Tishomingo County, MS). I can walk into a Polish deli on Division Street in Chicago as easily as I can walk into Rita’s Restaurant in Dennis, MS. True, I might get the “stare” at Rita’s, but I can totally fit into the mindset of the people.

There is one way that political consultants try to hide the fact that they can’t read the voter’s mind, and that is by using “issues”. With the exception of some highly educated districts, most voters in Florida don’t know one state issue from the next. This is why I have always advocated more extensive use of push polls in local election (even if that sounds bad). Ask your average Florida voter while leaving the polls how his or her state representative voted on a certain issue and they will more than likely have no clue. On the other hand, they just voted for or against that candidate.

We always talk about issues in this “West Wing” type of way, where we try to pit our minds against one another to see who can come up with the most cleaver remark. And when all is said and done, issues play a very small role in a campaign.

One example is the 2008 Presidential Election. Barack Obama probable ran the least issue oriented campaign and still won the election. Ask the average Obama supporter about his health care plan…not a clue. In fact, musician Will.I.Am is the perfect example of what I am talking about. When asked what issues of Obama he supported, he couldn’t name one. The rock star hype is what got him his support.

On the other hand, who voted against Obama? Many people voted for McCain for one reason or another. But one of the biggest reasons was race. I talked to a number of my cousins in Mississippi and they specifically said that they voted for McCain because they wouldn’t vote for a black man. So if you don’t think race was a factor, you are wrong. This is just a fact of political campaigning.

So, back to issues. Most political consultants want to think it is about issues, but it isn’t (as was just shown in the 2008 example). The “issues button” that consultants press seem to be because of their total lack of sociological understanding of the electorate. They are already pre-programmed to say “if they are conservative, they are conservative on all issues.” The same goes for the liberals as well.

Let’s examine this a little further. My grandmother was from Belmont, Mississippi. She was pro-life. She was socially conservative. Therefore, if a political consultant were to target her using their conventional logic, they would talk about their pro-life stance and other issues of social conservatism.

What they didn’t know is that she was also strongly anti-big business. And in her mind, the big business issue trumped the pro-life issue. In fact, this is the case in many southern states and regions. Consultants just assume that if someone is from a conservative region, they are anti-tax. But if one candidate ran only on pro-life and another ran on anti-big business in a southern district, it would be close, with the anti-big business guy winning by a hair.

But there is another flaw about campaigning on “issues”, and that the assumption that the voters are informed on the issues. If a consultant is running an issues-oriented campaign in a district where the voters are very loosely or not at all attached to the issues (which is the case in most Florida districts), that campaign would usually fail. In this case, as is the case with many local Florida elections, it is about image and perception.

Voter’s lack of connection to issues is one major issue. The other major issue is that voters can be entirely misinformed on the issues. And trust me, there are more of those than you think. For example, I knew a guy that said that since the minimum wage increase was passed during the Jeb Bush Administration, that Jeb supported the increase of the minimum wage, thus he was voting for him. This guy didn’t understand the referendum method. He also didn’t know that Bush strongly opposed the measure. Still, on Election Day, he was totally convinced that Republicans supported the minimum wage and Democrats didn’t. And I have more than one story like this…it is a common problem.

Most political consultants haven’t lived in the “real world”. This real world experience helps expand the understanding of voters. Instead, most live in a cookie-cutter society, especially on the Democratic side.

Therefore, a campaign running on “issues” is an extremely flawed plan, because the campaign cannot be assured that “D” means liberal, if a rural voter means conservative, if the voter is informed at all, etc… It is all guess work. That is why understanding the thought process of the voter is much more important.

Once our political consultants can master the skill of understanding the psyche of the political mind, on all levels and in every political region, then they will be able to master elections.

11 thoughts on “Are Florida’s political consultants clueless?”

  1. You just assume because a person lives in one area they know nothing about the other regions. This is incorrect. Some Tallahassee consultants are quite good strategists who understand the state. The real issue is that they all double dip as lobbyists.

  2. They understand voter trends, Demographic shifts, messaging, etcetera. You may know one or two
    Consultants and you are stereotyping all of them.

    By the way , the vast majority of southern Fla consultants only work their home areas or home counties. Very few do races in Central of Northern Florida. But the inverse is true. Because most D business is in the south everyone hunts for work down there.

  3. That is my point…it isn’t just understanding those analytic things (demographic shifts and voter trends), but the lack of understanding the psychology and sociology of Florida voters is the huge problem. I could teach a 5-year old voter trends and demographics in 10 minutes. I just need to learn to be a better salesman because what most consultants are selling their clients is an absolute joke. I don’t know, maybe voting trends and demographics are hard for most consultants, but it is extremely easy for me.

    As far as messaging, I don’t see it. Again, I am speaking as a Democrat, not as a Republican. Having all the constitutional offices and an overwhelming majority in the Florida House and Senate going to the GOP tells me that the Democratic messaging is extremely way off. In addition, many Democratic consultants base their messaging on “issues”, which doesn’t work with a unconcerned Florida electorate.

    I agree with what you are saying with south Florida. They know the area so they can stay down there. But statewide, almost all are clueless. My proof…the results in all Florida elections since 1998.

  4. Trotter’s work is generally excellent but this piece is a little too sappy and negative and relies almost entirely on stereotypes. While some of these stereotypes are true I think their is an exaggerated thesis here. The continued failures of the Democrats on the state level owes itself to several factors. The control of the state party by four to six well paid and well spoken consultants is a big part of the problem. But they are all Tallahassee based. You claim those from South Florida cannot be charged with running campaigns outside the region without anything but assumptions about how they do not know the rest of the state and how to work there because the area they hail from is more liberal.

    This is way off base. First off, if you look at voter registration Broward , Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are performing at maximum levels exceeding Democratic registration with performance. The Republicans in the area very rarely exceed their registration numbers with performance. Second, the consultants from South Florida hardly ever get to do work outside the area despite knowing how to win competitive elections. Whenever Orlando area consultants are hired in the south they generally make mistakes such as focussing on policy and issues also wasting time on swing voters instead of working to turnout D’s.

    In other words you are dead wrong in this blog.

  5. First of all, I agree with your second paragraph, and say as much in the post, especially in regards to focusing on policy and issues. I agree 100%.

    As far as the south Florida thing (as I think I have upset a few of the natives), I do not think they could run a successful north Florida campaign, period. Again, it has nothing to do with “elections” in general, but the human mind and the way a north Florida voter looks at life compared to a south Florida voter. Basically, what I am saying is throw out the technical aspects of campaigning and look at the human side of it and understand the electorate. Consultants mostly do that in their own circles. And those in south Florida, as two people have already admitted, stay in south Florida. So the circle stays small. I feel that many in south Florida don’t know politics north of Stuart. Some do, but many don’t. But I don’t think that many want to know anything north of Stuart either. As both of the previous posters mentioned, they are content in south Florida.

    Now does that mean I think we should understand the north Florida voter and their psyche? Yes. Does that mean I think we should plan an electoral strategy around north Florida? No.

    But with that being said, I have said, and continue to say, that we shouldn’t target north Florida. I am simply stating the fact that the “minds” of these two different regions are completely different. Understanding all of the voters in Florida helps arm any consultant with the most important tool in campaigning…sociopolitical knowledge. Again, that is not something that can be taught in a book or a classroom. The only way to truly understand this phenomenon is by carefully studying the human mind, the way it reacts in both political and everyday life settings.

  6. Perhaps it is because south Florida consultants non emphasis on issues with their candidates (Eric Johnson once famously said he did not care about policy just winning elections, and he was a Congressional Chief of Staff) that our party is in such bad shape in identifying what it stands for. That and the Tallahassee based uber lobbyists who fund and run the FDP. Those guys interest is in maintaining the status quo and pushing the agenda of who pays them and usually it is insurance, and big business.

  7. It’s no wonder Florida Democrats are in such a sad state……it seems we spend most of our time discussing/arguing among ourselves “who understands and who doesn’t”…”who stereotypes and who doesn’t” and “the southern folks don’t understand the north or central and visa versa”.

    The GOP has figured out a very simple strategy…….the voter is basically uninterested and has certain biases…..find out what the simpleminded voter wants to hear……and tell it to them without regard to the truth or and deliberately mislead to make the point…..just as long as it will sell to 50% plus 1……that’s all that maters! Now folks, thanks to Citizen’s United, they have plenty of money to really do that!

  8. In 1980 Bob Graham was a progressive Governor; a person of integrity and ethics. The percentage of Jewish voters in Florida is
    about 4% and during the 2004 Democratic convention, many of those delegates from the Miami area were non-committal for
    Joe Lieberman. So much has changed…. We should be concerned for the future of our country, Europe and the Middle Class….

    (Unless you are R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., founder of The American Spectator; he isn’t concerned about Europe, he just goes there for vacations.)

    Perhaps folks aren’t informed on all issues, but they were and are focused on their own. In 2008, Obama addressed our concern for Access to Quality Affordable Health care. He was against the invasion of Iraq, an important issue viewed as a negative for the Bush Administration.

    One could say that only 20% of voters are knowledgeable, 30% are ideologues and 50% aren’t well informed….

    Many folks think we have a one party system, their vote doesn’t count and it doesn’t matter who gets elected…..This was apparent during my conversations with the Occupy Movement and social meetings.

  9. I think a field office in Orlando and one in Fort Lauderdale would work. Forget just the campaign season. You need a full time party staffer there. I like this idea of cultivating local elected officials and developing a bench. We should have done that years ago. I think we need the Orlando office to focus on the entire I-4 corridor and the Ft Lauderdale office to work on everything from Vero down to the Keys.

    Why do state agencies have large operations outside Tallahassee with major executives in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, West palm, Jacksonville etc. Oh and by the way the RPOF has field staff all over the state!

    The Tallahassee triple dip crowd (lawyer, lobbyists, political consultants) have hijacked the party since Lawton Chiles death.