Florida’s 2018 election is a game changer

We have thrown out Florida’s long-standing political playbook. We're about to find out just how dramatically the standard map and math for winning Florida has shifted.
Published Nov. 4, 2018

So many Florida firsts and near-firsts in this volatile, unpredictable, and Trump-dominated election of 2018:

• This is the first time both major parties have fielded candidates appealing largely to their most hard core partisans, rather than the swing-voter centrists who campaigns have forever obsessed over along the Interstate-4 Corridor. The governor's race is a base war, not a race to the middle.

• Never before have Floridians nominated an African-American candidate for governor, making race a significant and overt part of the campaign.

• We have an utterly unpredictable, and energized electorate where no one can say with confidence who will turn out in big numbers and who won't. And in a state known as Heaven's Waiting Room, a majority of the electorate today is younger than 54, making it even more unpredictable.

• Partisan divisions are so fixed that money and TV ads appear much less important as they once were. Both sides have spent more than $230 million on TV ads for the Senate and governor's races, and the candidates have remained more or less tied the entire time.

• Grassroots Democrats have never shown as much energy, and anger, in a midterm election as in 2018, while the President Trump's Florida GOP bares little resemblance to the party that Jeb Bush built into a powerhouse two decades ago.

• With every election cycle, a steadily increasing share of the vote is cast before Election Day.

"This will be the first midterm where I think the pre-election day voter is going to vastly outnumber the Election Day voter," said Democratic strategist Steve Schale.

We have thrown out Florida's long-standing political playbook, in other words, and should learn just how dramatically the standard map and math for winning Florida has shifted.

All but certain is that if Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum lose on Tuesday, Florida Democrats will be asking themselves how, if they couldn't win this year, they can ever win a non-presidential Florida election.

Democratic voters are highly motivated and organized. In Gillum they have a charismatic candidate with an inspiring personal story who consistently draws big to giant crowds and seems poised to drive higher turnout among overwhelmingly Democratic young and black voters.

He is running against a sometimes listless Republican nominee, Ron DeSantis, who rarely draws crowds and talks little about what he wants to do as governor. This is the first midterm for the unpopular president. How can Democrats possibly lose in this climate?

Think Donald Trump.

Pundits and analysts spend so much time looking at voting and demographic trends in major counties such as Miami-Dade, Hillsborough or Duval, while overlooking what's happening in many of small- and mid-size counties.

Democrats may be gaining ground in Republican counties Sarasota or Seminole, outside of Orlando, with significant numbers of college-educated voters. But that's not necessarily enough to compensate for skyrocketing Republican victory margins in smaller counties.

Look at the north Suncoast. In 2014, Rick Scott won Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties by about 15,000 votes. Two years later Trump won those same counties about 113,000, his statewide margin of victory against Hillary Clinton.

Negative campaigning certainly is nothing new, but never in modern Florida history has a Republican nominee for governor run such an overwhelmingly negative campaign. DeSantis devotes the overwhelmingly majority of most stump speeches to calling Gillum a radical, corrupt, soft-on-crime, tax-raiser.

He says little about what he wants to do as governor beyond keep governing as Rick Scott has an appointing conservative judges. Gillum attacks DeSantis, often about his closeness to Trump, but spends most of his speeches talking about his agenda for expanding Medicaid, paying teachers more, and promoting a stronger solar industry.

A fear-based message is intended to rev up the base. Republican turnout is strong so far, but Election Day will tell us how the negativity worked with voters registered to neither major party.

"The great question that we talk about every election is do you persuade with hope or fear," said Anthony Pedicini, a Republican consultant in Tampa. "A good balance is usually what you look for."

Susan MacManus, USF Distinguished University Professor Emerita, sees age as a key area of change as well.

This is the first election where GenXers (38-53), Millennials (22-37), and GenZers (18-21) make up more than half the electorate, she said, and a majority of GenZers are non-white.

"People are thinking in the old model that you can win just by appealing to older Florida, but that's a very outmoded approach," she said, noting the young voters receive their information much differently than older generations and tend to be much less aligned to political parties.

These voters also are not nearly as inclined to vote as their parents and grandparents.

"The younger vote is the big question mark this election," she said. "Either they're going to finally show the political clout they have as they majority of the electorate or they're not."

Florida Republicans consistently nominate the most credible conservative gubernatorial candidate, while Democrats until this year always went with a centrist candidate seen as unlikely to turn off moderate, pro-business voters.

This year was the first time in decades both parties had competitive primaries and also the first time Democrats nominated an unabashed liberal. Republicans nominated a Tea Party conservative, largely on the strength of his endorsement by President Trump.

Democrats are optimistic that voters who rarely turn out in mid-term elections will turn out to support Gillum.

Republicans are optimistic that the infrequent voters who helped Trump win Florida two years will turn this year, mainly to thwart the election of a liberal governor winning enthusiastic support from the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.