Is this just how Florida elections are? The navel-gazing begins (again) for the Florida Democratic Party

By: - November 8, 2018 7:00 am

As of 5:30 Wednesday, this is how close the governor’s race is. Division of Elections screenshot

For the fourth time in the last five statewide elections in Florida, the Democratic Party has come up achingly short in a major political race.

As of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, in the governor’s race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis, the totals stood at 49.7 percent for DeSantis and 49.08 percent for Gillum. Only 50,789 votes – fewer than the number of people who go to a Florida State football game – separated the two candidates. An automatic recount isn’t triggered until the difference is .5 percent.

Most votes are already counted except overseas ballots and some “provisional” ballots, which officials give voters when there’s some problem with voting registration, such as signatures that don’t match the ones on file.

One thing is obvious in statewide elections over the past decade: It’s always close, and Republicans always win. The exception in past years has been U.S. Sen, Bill Nelson, a Democrat who has kept his seat for decades but this year is likely headed to a recount in his contest with Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“This state is not a purple state,” argues Pinellas County Democratic political strategist Barry Edwards. “This state is a red state.”

Well, barely a red state. According to the latest tallies from the Florida Division of Elections, in the U.S. Senate race, Nelson trails Scott by slightly more than 30,000 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast, with a recount likely.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Two years ago in Florida, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for president by just 1.2 percent; and in the race for governor, in 2014 Scott defeated Charlie Crist by 1 percent, in 2010 Scott defeated Alex Sink by 1.2 percent.

Florida has 13.2 million registered voters, with 37 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican, and 28 percent Independent. Since Democrats have 257,000 more registered voters than Republicans, the numbers should swing in the Democrats’ favor.

Considering the total number of registered Democratic voters in Florida, what often gets overlooked is that there are significant pockets of North Florida/Panhandle Democrats who are “Dixie-crats” and still regularly vote Republican in general elections.

Conservative-leaning white voters are a huge demographic – and they aren’t going away in Florida. As an example, take a look at the Villages, a Republican stronghold about an hour’s drive from Orlando, one of the largest retirement communities in the country. The area is one of America’s 10 fastest-growing metropolitan communities, according to U.S. Census data released earlier this year. Residents there voted for Donald Trump by nearly 70 percent in 2016.

Former Tampa U.S. Representative and 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis says the singular presence of Trump has boosted the Republican base, both in 2016 and on Tuesday.

“I think a lot of people who are devoted to the president are just heavily motivated to vote,” Davis said. “They’re single-issue voters on things like immigration, guns and choice, and I think that’s helping them drive a heavier turnout.”

How the independent voters affected Tuesday’s election is still unknown; there’s not enough data available yet.

Democratic Party blogger Kartik Krishnaiyer theorizes that the Republican Party of Florida is better at campaign infrastructure than the Democrats are, specifically on Election Day.

“Republicans trust data more than Democrats do,” he says, referring to the GOP’s ability to target voters on the day of election, while Democrats have pushed to get more voters to vote by mail and vote early at the polls – but haven’t emphasized pushing voting at precincts on Election Day.

This year, Democrats took the lead in casting early ballots by a narrow 0.5 percent, taking a lead of under 25,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast before Election Day. The Republicans seized on Election Day as they have in past elections, and that’s because GOP party strategists trust their own pollsters more than the Democrats do, Krishnaiyer argues.

“Republicans don’t trust science, but Democrats don’t trust political scientists,” he quips, saying that the fact the party continues to lose major political statewide races consistently by such a relatively small margin shows that they are unable to find a way to get as many voters to the polls as they need to win these tight races.

Ione Townsend is the chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, arguably the most successful local party in the state.

Hillsborough Democrats followed their success in 2016 with a big night on Tuesday, flipping two County Commission seats from red to blue, flipping two Florida House seats to the Democrats, and leading in another state Senate seat (where Janet Cruz has a narrow lead over Republican Dana Young in a race likely to go to recount), and being on the winning side of two sales tax proposals for transportation and education.

Townsend said her party began creating a strong ground game for 2016 nearly two years ago, and was ultimately able to sign up close to 45,000 to vote-by-mail this time around who didn’t vote in 2014 – a boon to the local races.

Perhaps inevitably, there is some sniping going on about the electability of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, who was trying to make history by becoming Florida’s first black governor. Gillum led DeSantis in public polling immediately after the two won their respective primary races and continued to lead in poll after poll. But Edwards speculates that once some moderate voters were introduced to his progressive agenda (which included a major corporate tax hike to raise teacher pay), they shied away from him at the end.

“Gillum faded when voters discovered that he was an ultra-liberal progressive, and Florida remains a center-right state,” he says.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine agrees. A centrist-oriented candidate for governor this year who finished third in the primary, Levine says the Florida Democrats missed a golden opportunity where voters in the center “were desperately running for an alternative.”

“I feel like we did a very good job exciting and energizing the young folks and the progressives and the liberal base, but we forget the center and I’m not sure we were able to attract enough of those folks to win the day,” he said.

Gillum’s presence on the ballot and the aid of third-party groups like Tom Steyer’s NextGen America helped boost turnout among low-propensity voters and people of color in the general election,

Not every Democrat was feeling resigned after Tuesday’s election.

“I’m encouraged and optimistic about our future,” said Rita Ferrandino, the former chair of the Sarasota Democratic Party.

She pointed specifically to Democratic women who “made a dent in the GOP-dominated state government with our wins,” referring to Anna Eskamani in Orlando, Fentrice Driskell in Hillsborough County and Margaret Good from Sarasota, who all captured seats in the Florida House.

Davis also offered four tangible signs that things are looking up for Florida Democrats: The state’s changing (but probably not fast enough for some Democrats) demographics; the fact that voters approved passage of Florida Constitutional Amendment 4 to restore voting rights for some 1.4 million Floridians now barred from voting because they have a felony record;  electoral victories that flipped two South Florida congressional seats from red to blue, and the successful passage of every proposed local education tax on the ballot throughout the state.

Kartik Krishnaiyer says that the party’s repeated statewide losses don’t seem to have much to do with the type of candidates, adding that the Democrats have fielded a wide variety of people, including bankers (Sink), party-switchers (Crist) and progressive big-city mayors (Gillum). All have finished their races 40,000 to 70,000 votes short of their Republican opponents.

“We just need to find a way to get to 49.8 percent,” he says, referring to the 49.7% that DeSantis currently has in the governor’s race.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.