Exloring the challenges facing GOP
Every two years, campaign professionals, political scientists and journalists gather in Gainesville for a valuable conference by the University of Florida's graduate program in political campaigning. The main takeaway from Friday's conference? The GOP faces enormous challenges, short term and long term, to retain its viability.
Between the Democrats' overwhelming advantage among voters under 30 and minorities, in social media and grass roots campaigning, experts agreed, the Republican Party has to work on not just the nuts and bolts of campaigning but the underlying message that's appealing to a shrinking segment of the electorate.
"Demographics are going to bury them if they don't change policies. It's not enough just to build a better mousetrap,'' said Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Republican pollster David Hill said the good news is that "adults" in the GOP understand the challenges, and "Floridians are very much at the forefront of the introspection and rethinking that's going on."
Former state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, gave a blistering critique of a party that moved far to the right and out of the mainstream, where legislative leaders take their agenda from special interest groups and right-wing think tanks rather than rank-and-file conservative voters.
"I truly believe the outcome in Florida by President (Barack) Obama was because a very lackadaisical group of Democratic voters was motivated by voter suppression. They believed something was being taken away from them," Dockery said. "(Legislative leaders) said it was about preventing voter fraud, when in fact it was about voter suppression."
Looking ahead to the 2014 governor's race, though, Democratic pollster Kevin Akins said Democrats can't take anything for granted. And as much as Democrats may want to harp on Gov. Rick Scott's role in leading a health care company that paid the largest Medicare fraud fine in American history, Akins said that message won't work.
"He's not a criminal and a crook. He's become an incumbent politician," Akins said. "You beat him when you talk about what his policies mean to the middle class."
The last poll by Akins' firm, Hamilton Campaigns, six weeks ago showed 42 percent of Florida voters approving of Scott's job performance and 56 percent disapproving.
Other polls have found Scott's approval ratings as low as in the 20 to 30 percent range, but Hamilton Campaigns has never found them so low.