Florida Democrats: A Map to the Path Forward

Around the state and across the Internet, a number of voice are chiming in with their ideas of what went wrong and/or how to do better.  Some of these ideas are good, some are bad, and some are a bit of each.

At The Political Hurricane, Dave Trotter lays out his ideas and commentary in two posts (here and here).  The first post is focused on geographic targeting/strategy.  Some of the thoughts contained with in this have merit, but the premise of the piece is lacking a fundamental understanding of campaigns and elections and how they effect communities over time.  His basic conclusion is not to waste time or effort on “North Florida” (which he defines to 17 specific counties from the panhandle to north central Florida), instead to focus on Democratic strongholds and the metropolitan regions surrounding the big cities of south and central Florida.  This is a very common strategic idea I refer to as “Terry McAuliffe’s idiocy.”  The Democratic Party used that strategy for a number of years, in whole or in part, through the Clinton era, up to the 2005 selection of DNC Chairman Howard Dean – he brought forth a more intelligent strategy we will call…”Howard Dean’s 50-State Strategy.”

  • The McAuliffe strategy/idiocy: Focus on the areas we have strength or the signs of future strength to create immediate gains and channel every dollar to those areas/campaigns.  The strategy has at its core that there is a finite number of resources/dollars available to Democratic campaigns and thus they must be horded to the highest priority races and all other races must be kept down out of mainstream attention.
  • Howard Dean’s 50-state Strategy: Focus is on fielding competent and capable candidates for every seat, everywhere – nothing goes uncontested.  Provide training, mentor-ship and wisdom to as many of these candidates and campaigns as is humanly possible.  Train staff and surrogates everywhere.  This strategy has a base premise that donors and resources expand as the quality and quantity of candidates and campaigns expand.  A person willing to give $100 to one great candidate will likely give $50 to four or five good candidates if engaged and activated.  More donors will be found and engaged as we expand the reach of our campaigns.

In the real world, the McAuliffe concept is far easier to wrap your head and hands around, it is easy to to tune out all the peripheral noise and focus your efforts on one candidate and community, particularly when that community is already inclined to support your message and values.  The Dean strategy takes far more work, has more challenges and takes more time to “pay off”.  This makes the choice similar to the standard politics of elected officials, short term benefits equate to re-election, long term strategies lead to greater chances of not being re-elected.

Long term however, the benefits of the Dean strategy are infinitely better and the negatives of the McAuliffe strategy become brutally oppressive.  Over the long term, neglected communities, places where Democrats don’t field viable candidates, local party orgs aren’t given the resources (money, training, visiting candidates/surrogates), these places rescind farther in to becoming Republican strongholds.  They become echo chambers of unchallenged ideology and rhetoric, phrases like “death panels” and “socialized medicine” take root and skew debates at the national level.  Margins of 60%-40% quickly fall to 70-30 or 80-20, making it that much harder to in larger overlapping districts or statewide.  Dominating apathy to the party brand becomes contagious, spanning outside the district to adjacent districts, people become less willing to admit they are Democrats, let alone show pride in those values.

On the other side. in the Dean Strategy, over time, the competition and challenged arguments/messages lead to small gains over time.  Given an opportunity, whether it be a local event (scandal, tragedy, triumph), or a national event/attitude, having a competent Democratic candidate running a solid campaign makes the district winnable.  National debates are able to rely less on cherry picked extremism, as there are fewer “echo chamber” enclaves that just parrot back the far right’s talking points on the given issue of the day.  The margins slide closer together, 70-30’s become 65-35s, 60-40 becomes 55-45, eventually with the right combination of candidate, campaign, events and overarching energy, they flip.  Democrats come out of hiding, they become more willing to display their values with pride.  They push back at local small businesses that openly promote intolerance and support candidates that push far-right ideology.  They become more likely to support local, state and national candidates and Democratic organizations.

So, geographically limiting our focus?  That is some of the right intention with the wrong action.  We need to stop selecting candidates designed to cater to those “more conservative regions”  and instead select the best Democratic nominee based on their ability to communicate Democratic values, without shame or defensiveness.   They should be proud to support tolerance, education, women’s rights, the environment, workers and all of the other causes and values that make us Democrats.  Then those candidates should focus on rallying the bases in Democratic strongholds before moving out and campaigning in the more marginal and Republican base communities.  There should be a full time, paid FDP staffer in (or responsible for) every one of the 67 counties.  Not one staffer responsible for organizing the 17 north Florida Republican counties as Mr. Trotter laid them out.  You can have more for larger counties, but each county should have one organizer, one voice, working hard for every Democratic vote in the county, doing the full time administration of the County DEC, of planning and coordinating FDP level events occurring within the county or promoting and coordinating travel to events for county dems to big events elsewhere.

I’m sure someone will respond to me something along the lines of “you just don’t understand how conservative it is out there…” — give me a damn break.  Go campaign in Utah county Utah (think the Osmonds and BYU) or western Iowa (oldest congressional district in the nation, 50% of Iowa’s geography, 10% of the people) or the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (think Jerry Falwell).  I know red territory, few democratic activists have the experience and understanding of red territory I have.  I’m not impressed by your claims of how conservative it is.  I’ve been all over Florida too.  Do the work, put in the resources and effort and you will get results.

More conservative (or falsely moderate Democratic candidates) gain us nothing and lose us great deals.  There is no benefit. We need candidates up and down the ticket to stand up for the values of our platform.  Conviction and passion are what motivates supporters and wins elections, not artificial width of appeal.  They need to be unafraid of taking on attacks, they need to reject the premise of ludicrous Republican allegations.  They need to stand tall and speak loud.  They need to bring energy and enthusiasm.  They need to shake every hand and acknowledge their supporters.  They need to be party builders, before and after their election.  There is no substitute for good candidates.  Quality control is OUR RESPONSIBILITY.

So the title of this post was “a Map to the Path Forward”.  Here’s what my experience tells me – we the activists cannot just throw down a list of changes and demand they happen.   We cannot demand new leadership and expect that to magically work out.  We need wholesale change, attitudes and ideas, policies and procedures, but we need that to happen without losing access to the resources that provide opportunity to function at all.  Am I saying bend to the will of the big dollar donors and institutional players?  Hell no.  One of the problems we have is donors/financiers dictating policy and action counter to the long term interest of the party.  We need to bring as many of those players along with us, they need to want to come with us.  We need to make a case that these ideas, our ideas, will give them greater “bang for the buck,” that we will deliver the results they seek.

To do that, we need to recognize that we cannot draw or suggest the path Forward, only begin illustrating a map to that path.  We can do certain things on our own:

  • We can begin recruiting future candidates, up and down the ticket, bringing them in to the discussion and directing them to the resources, groups and individuals that can assist them in first determining if they should run and second giving them the guidance to build a strong foundation for their campaign should they choose to run.
  • We can provide resources online and off, that make the process of building and executing a campaign, at a variety of levels, far easier.
  • We can provide positive and constructive coverage of these candidates, assisting in the promotion thereof where warranted, both online and off.
  • We can avoid being the tabloid journalists that are dominating the political media landscape, both in Florida and Nationally, by providing fact based coverage on things that matter, rather than material better suited in a supermarket rack or on a roll in a bathroom stall.
  • We can assist our local Democratic organizations, DEC’s, Clubs and others in organizing, promoting events and where applicable encouraging and assisting with the use of technology.

We can and we must do these things.  We must lead by example.  We must do the work, within the whatever limits our “real lives” allow.  We must be the ones we have been waiting for.

UPDATE (9:00pm 11/8/10):  In my haste to post this and get out of the Panera Bread I was working in, I neglected to say something very important:  Dave Trotter’s postings at The Political Hurricane have been constructive and positive additions to the discussion of improving the state of the Florida Democratic Party and cause, for that I thank him and hope he will continue to contribute to the discussion, whatever direction we take from here.  The quality of discussion is increased when dissenting views are brought forth and considered.