A few weeks ago this space looked at 10 Florida counties that will ultimately decide this fall’s election for governor and Cabinet. Former Gov. Charlie Crist is widely expected to dominate the vote totals from these counties, with the only question being by how much.
The theory, supported by history, is the candidate that can best maximize his turnout in Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Lee, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Polk counties will win. Tuesday’s primary election does not change that reality.
Some commentators are painting ominous clouds for Crist due to extremely low turnout. They point to the fact Gov. Rick Scott earned 212,000 more votes statewide than Crist, including 115,000 more in the 10 counties that represent Crist’s path to victory in November.
Scott lost six of the 10 major counties by a huge margin in 2010, but made up the difference around the rest of the state to claim victory. In 2012, Mitt Romney was overwhelmed by Barack Obama and was unable to overcome the monstrous deficit.
If Scott and Republicans would somehow come even remotely close to Crist in these counties in November, he will win re-election handily. While everyone should remember it is August and not November, how are these results explained?
First, turnout was expected to be low. Non-presidential elections always attract fewer voters and primary turnout in those years can sometimes border on abysmal.
Statewide, just 17.6 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot on Tuesday. That illustrates the definition of abysmal in bright, shiny colors. Noted political scientists such as FSU professor Lance deHaven-Smith and Daniel Smith of the University of Florida believe Tuesday’s results bode poorly for Crist. What has them so pessimistic about Crist’s chances?
The biggest booty of votes for Democratic candidates lies in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. But on Tuesday nearly nine out of 10 Broward voters remained on their collective booties and failed to vote. Only Glades County, with a 9.6 percent turnout, was worse than Broward’s 10.76 percent. Palm Beach County came in at 12 percent while Miami-Dade attracted only 14.4 percent.
Another source of concern, according to the experts, was the activity in the Panhandle and other smaller “Dixiecrat” counties in the north. Some reported turnouts approaching 50 percent. Nan Rich earned 40 percent of the Democratic vote in these counties.
Scott and Republicans are banking on these counties helping to offset the large deficits created by the top 10 counties. Team Scott is no doubt encouraged by the apparent lack of interest in the mega counties and the increased interest elsewhere.
One possible explanation is the smaller counties with higher turnouts may have had local races of interest, while large counties such as Broward and Palm Beach did not. That can assuredly affect turnout. The only “drama” involving both governor’s primaries was the margin of victory.
To help prove the notion that competitive races draw voters, the Palm Beach Post’s John Kennedy looked back only four years. In 2010, about 1.3 million Republicans showed up to vote for Bill McCollum or Rick Scott, 37 percent more than this year’s statewide Republican turnout of 952,000. It is safe to conclude both campaigns were not in full get-out-the-vote mode.
All of this should lead Floridians to put as much credence into the primary results as we would the results of a spring training Grapefruit League baseball game. It’s entertaining to watch and listen to the players, but the real games start now. It is time to talk about turnout when it truly means something.
Scott is taking the grassroots effort very seriously and has opened numerous field offices around the state. He and his allies are also working to depress Crist’s turnout with ads and other tactics. He certainly has the campaign cash to do so.
Crist will have far fewer field offices, but is counting on his instincts, an Obama-style turnout operation, and his ability to connect with people, to carry him to victory. He is launching his own drones to conduct an ad campaign over the airwaves to complement the grassroots effort.
On primary election day The Washington Post published a story about the Scott vs. Crist race. Scott stated the obvious to writer Karen Tumulty when he said “we’ve got to have a better ground game than our opponents.”
For his part, Crist described his Election Day 2012 visit to Obama’s Tampa field office.
“My God, I’ve never seen this before,” he told Tumulty. “I can tell you, Republicans don’t know about this.”
Whether they do or not, the large-scale voter turnout operations run by national campaigns and the national committees will not be unveiled until 2016. Those kinds of efforts are massive and expensive.
We will see if Scott’s multiple field offices or Crist’s version of ObamaVote will carry the day in the Big 10 counties and ultimately statewide. Even after a low-turnout primary, the dynamics of this race remain unchanged.
Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee.