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Politics

Florida Democrats work to invigorate voters for 2014

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:04 AM
TAMPA -

"Voter dropoff" – two simple words that scare the Florida Democratic Party.

Looking ahead to the 2014 election, Democrats are trying to hold onto the gains they made at the polls Nov. 6 – their first real electoral progress in Florida in more than a decade.

Voter dropoff, said political scientist Thomas Schailler of the University of Maryland/Baltimore County, is the political junkies' term for the decline in voter turnout between presidential elections and midterm or "off-year" elections.

In 2014, Democrats will be trying to protect three new Florida Congress members and several new state legislators, while also aiming at a big prize they haven't won since 1994 – the governor's office.

Exhilarated by their Nov. 6 wins and the unpopularity of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Democrats are giddy with dreams of recapturing influence in state government they haven't had since the mid-1990s.

But they may have a dash of cold water coming.

"Lower midterm turnouts tend to skew the electorate toward older, white and/or more affluent voters" – in other words, Republicans – Schailler wrote in a recent article.

Democrats have seen this problem in Florida before.

In 2008, with President Barack Obama on the ballot for the first time, following a primary with Hillary Clinton that roused Democrats nationwide, voter turnout in Florida hit 75 percent.

That year, Democrats won three hotly contested congressional races in competitive central Florida districts: Alan Grayson narrowly unseated Republican Rep. Ric Keller; Rep. Ron Klein comfortably held off a challenge from Republican Allen West; and Suzanne Kosmas easily unseated scandal-tainted Republican Rep. Tom Feeney.

Then came the 2010 midterm election, and a 49 percent voter turnout.

West reversed Klein's comfortable margin; Sandy Adams unseated Kosmas; and religious conservative Dan Webster ousted liberal firebrand Grayson in a bitter race.

The 2010 vote was a conservative "wave" election, influenced heavily by opposition to Obama's health care reform plan.

But the composition of the electorate also made a difference, said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.

"There is a huge dropoff in midterms, mostly driven by younger voters, who are in absentia when it comes to state and local races," she said.

Younger voters "don't know much about state and local politics, so it will take a high-profile race at the top of the ticket to draw them in."

Nationwide, Schailler wrote, voter turnout dropped off 14 percent between presidential and midterm elections during the period from 1964-2010.

In Florida, the gap is typically larger. Turnout drops 20 points or more in off-years compared to presidential elections.

There are some exceptions.

In 1994, a hard-fought governor's race between two Florida political stars – the iconic Democrat Lawton Chiles and the up-and-coming Republican Jeb Bush – generated a 66 percent voter turnout.

The following 1996 presidential race, with scandal-tainted President Bill Clinton facing the unexciting Republican Bob Dole, only produced 67 percent.

The group most affected by voter dropoff is the young, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist specializing in voter behavior and turnout at George Mason University in Virginia.

In presidential years, about 50 percent of voters 18 to 29 typically go to the polls. That drops to 25 or so in off-years.

"It's like clockwork, it happens in every election," McDonald said. "There is no reason to expect that suddenly young people are going to change their behavior" in the 2014 race.

Also affected, but somewhat less, are minorities, the poor, the less educated and people who move frequently, he said. "We're talking about Democrats."

The irony, he said, is that the offices on the ballot in non-presidential years, including governors, state legislators and members of Congress, "actually have more effect on people's lives than the president does, but people don't see that connection."

Only rarely, he said, are state races sensational enough to overcome the phenomenon. Examples are pro wrestler Jesse Ventura's 1998 race for governor of Minnesota, and the 2003 California recall election, won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The California vote followed a massive state electricity crisis, and capped a circus-like campaign with more than 100 candidates, including porn star Mary Carey, child actor Gary Coleman and heiress Arianna Huffington.

"It's got to be a really unusual election that ignites the interest of voters," he said. "Just because a candidate's unpopular doesn't usually do it."

Nonetheless, Democrats hope the cause of unseating Scott, a nationwide lightning rod over what Democrats call voter suppression efforts in Florida, will help overcome turnout problems.

Many are hoping former Gov. Charlie Crist, who looks like an early frontrunner for the nomination, can rekindle his popularity.

"It is clear that we must keep the excitement and energy from the 2012 grassroots movement alive," said Allison Tant of Tallahassee, a candidate for party chairman.

The way to do it, she said, is "keeping key issues alive, such as elections reform and holding Rick Scott accountable for his failed policies."


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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