My late business partner Ross Bates used to say, “Everything works until it doesn’t.” In Florida last night, we may have seen what’s not working anymore. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won the Democratic nomination for Florida governor by defeating former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and a host of other well-funded candidates.
Graham, the daughter of former Governor and US Senator Bob Graham, was the favorite going into the election last night. In the midst of the #MeToo movement and the only woman on the ballot, she seemed to have a solid advantage. Polls had her with a substantial lead but Graham was attacked harshly by her opponents coming down the stretch.
Still, Gillum, who is African-American, ran a different kind of campaign. Supported by billionaire Tom Steyers, he put his money into a massive field operation. In a state with a large minority population in a Democratic primary, his strategy made sense. While other candidates were spending millions on television, Gillium and his superPAC allies spent less than $2,000,000 in a state with very expensive media markets. Their surge probably wasn’t reflected in the polls because the people who put him over the top weren’t likely voters.
Certainly, a general election is not a primary, but Gillium’s strategy might make sense in November. In this highly polarized environment, in a midterm, the election will hinge as much on who turns out as who gets persuaded. Television and other paid media can raise name recognition and deliver a message, but they have little impact on turnout.
Right now, there are few swing voters left in the electorate with partisans dominating its ranks. One Republican analyst said that based on primaries and special elections, the Republican electorate will likely look a lot like a standard midterm but that the Democratic electorate would fall somewhere between a midterm and presidential electorate. That picture gives an idea of how the political environment shapes outcomes more than anything candidates are doing.
In North Carolina in both 2010 and 2014, around 51% of registered Republicans voted. In contrast, only 44% of Democrats voted in 2010 and 46% voted in 2014. Unaffiliated voters showed up a rate of 33% in 2010 and 35% in 2014.
If the Republican analyst’s prediction hold for NC, then Republicans can expect a 51% turnout again, but Democrats will likely show up at 55% or more. With an eight point advantage in registration, Democrats would enter the election with a substantial advantage.
The lesson in Florida is not that television doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work to persuade people who aren’t persuadable. Altering the electorate can be an effective strategy, especially in a year when the political environment is already doing it. Field operations at a time when there are very few swing voters might have a greater impact on the outcome than paid communications. Campaign budgets should shift to reflect the change.
Democrats in North Carolina need to spend enough money to get their name recognition up and offer themselves as credible alternatives to the incumbent Republicans. They also need to spend money to counter the inevitable attacks. The only defense Republicans have in a wave that’s building like this one is a strategy to depress the vote through making Democratic candidates seem terribly unattractive. But Democrats’ focus should be on piggy-backing on the surge of voters, especially college educated ones, who are enthusiastic about voting this year. Adding one or two percent to the turnout in certain districts could make the difference between serving in the minority or the majority.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >