Martin Dyckman: Fla. Democrats need to find a message with a broad appeal

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Nearly 70 years ago, when the Florida Democratic Party was a monopoly, the political scientist V. O. Key Jr. saw a problem that haunts it to the present day.

In Florida, he wrote, it was “every man for himself.” Individual candidates built their own organizations, which dissolved when they left office or gave up running. With no credible Republican threats to their primary winners, the Democrats didn’t need to adopt platforms, practice teamwork, or build a bench for future campaigns.

That came back to mind on reading party Chair Allison Tant’s blast e-mail the day after the Nov. 4 disaster.

“Charlie Crist and Annette Taddeo ran a campaign of optimism and compassion for the people of Florida,” she wrote. “Charlie and his team worked their hearts out. I’m so proud of them—and so is every single Florida Democrat.

“But Florida Democrats aren’t resting. Our bench is stronger today, with fresh faces to meet tomorrow’s challenges…”

There wasn’t a word about any of the party’s other candidates for the Legislature and Cabinet, only 16 of whom got any party money.

Aside from Gwen Graham, who is going to Congress because she campaigned hard even in those counties she knew she couldn’t carry, there don’t seem to be many of those fresh faces.

The only other good news for Democrats was Tant’s decision to appoint a task force to diagnose and cure the party’s problems. There are natural leaders on the panel, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the co-chair, and Rod Smith, former state senator, gubernatorial candidate and party chair.

Though some have likened it — as Smith quips — to a “coroner’s jury,” he has constructive suggestions.

Among them:

“Do what they (the Republicans) did: Build a ticket.”

Find a message with broad appeal — to elderly whites as well as young people, non-Cuban Hispanics, and African-Americans. Do that by stressing Democratic successes in bringing the economy back from the brink of a depression. Define a platform for the future.

“We have lost to them on messaging,” says Smith. “It can’t be aimed at just minorities and young people.”

The Florida party’s only message this time seemed to be that “we’re not Rick Scott.”

Relying heavily on the I-4 corridor and on Southeast Florida — where off-year turnout is dismal — is now a proven formula for failure.

“We have got to find candidates who would like to campaign in areas they’re not familiar with,” says Smith. “…We are writing off too many votes.”

What the party shouldn’t do, in his opinion, is waste money and effort on trying to shift governor and Cabinet races to presidential years, when Democratic voters –- and especially the young and minorities — turn out in higher numbers.

“It won’t get 60 percent,” he said, referring to the new threshold for ratifying constitutional amendments.

Smith is right about that. An initiative campaign could probably generate sufficient signatures to get on the ballot, but the majority of all voters would likely see it as a partisan stunt.

It bears remembering that it was the Democrats themselves who switched those elections to the non-presidential years once they began to fear for their monopoly.

The impetus was the 1960 election, in which Richard Nixon narrowly carried Florida over John F. Kennedy and an unknown Republican, George C. Petersen, got 40 percent of the vote for governor, the highest for his party since Reconstruction and higher even than its 39 percent in 1928, the only other occasion of an anti-Catholic vote.

Most Democratic bigwigs in Florida weren’t that upset over Kennedy, and they remembered that Dwight D. Eisenhower had carried Florida twice. But they took Petersen’s tally as an omen of what a liberal national Democratic ticket paired against a popular national Republican could do to their monopoly on state offices.

That view overlooked the protest factor in Petersen’s tally. Moderate and liberal Democrats couldn’t stomach their gubernatorial nominee, C. Farris Bryant, an arch-segregationist. Many simply withheld their votes from Bryant or voted for Petersen, as I did.

In any event, the election switch backfired. A Republican, Claude R. Kirk Jr., won the first off-year governor’s race; the Democrats had nominated a liberal. Subsequently, Democrats benefitted from the switch. Reubin Askew, elected governor in 1970, told me he could not have won against a Nixon-led ticket in 1968. Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles also won off-year elections.

The off-year plainly has hurt the Democrats recently — especially this year, when they were bucking a Republican headwind nationwide. But the lesson, as Smith is trying to tell them, is to try to change what they can change, not what they can’t.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.