Mark R. Howard
The 2018 elections Florida deserves
As FLORIDA TREND entered 2018 — its 60th anniversary — I was a little taken aback to realize that I’ve served as its editor for a third of its history. I’m proud of that tenure and grateful that the magazine continues to weather the changes the years have brought to the state and to the business in which I work.
The late Harvard paleontologist and biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote brilliantly about how we tend to view time in two ways. Sometimes it seems like an arrow, a series of unique, disconnected and often unexpected events proceeding in a sequence: “Time marches on.”
At other times, it seems like a wheel, a cycle with patterns and a recurring structure: “What goes around, comes around” and “there’s nothing new under the sun.”
There are plenty of wheels rolling and arrows flying in Florida at the moment. It’s an odd time — among the best of times for our state’s economy and in some ways the worst of times for its politics, in a year when we will choose Florida’s 46th governor.
Ugly divisiveness continues to saturate political discourse as candidates look for red meat to throw to “the base” rather than paths to common ground.
The Legislature seems hamstrung by the internal politics of leadership succession. Once a legislator is in line to be Speaker or Senate president, maintaining that place becomes more important than doing what’s right for Florida.
The two main political parties are in a shambles. The Democrats, never well organized in Florida, struggle to find a message or set of principles to unify all the aggrieved identity groups to which it tries to genuflect. The state GOP, 10 years ago, was a well-oiled machine, but now it’s just oily. It went off the rails after it began to spend its money in the ways that it accuses the Democrats of wanting to spend public funds. Rick Scott showed he didn’t need the party or its money, spawning a cadre of me-too mavericks like Richard Corcoran who see the party as a mirror, not a beacon.
Meanwhile, the electorate itself is wandering in the wilderness. The large number of recently arrived residents in Florida means, for example, that one in three voters in the most heavily populated counties in South Florida weren’t registered here in 2010. And more voters, put off by acrid, hypercritical partisan attack-politics, have been registering as No Party Affiliation. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of Republican voters grew by about 280,000; Democrats grew by 367,000. NPAs grew by nearly 900,000, a 47% increase.
NPAs, including many younger voters, now comprise nearly 30% of all registered voters in the state, and the trend away from major-party registration appears to be intensifying. Since the election of Donald Trump, 44% of all new voter registrations in Florida have been NPAs, according to Florida Chamber of Commerce data, which project that by 2023, the largest number of registered voters will be Democrats, followed closely by NPAs, followed closely by Republicans.
The NPAs, who tend to be young, are a tough group to reach, says Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor at USF who’s an expert on voting trends. “Voters are wondering where they can get the truth,” she says. “It’s so ironic because we’ve never had more sources of information. The hardest thing for voters in the coming campaigns is whom to believe. They don’t trust big media, big government or big business.”
That’s the context in which the state will pick a U.S. senator and a governor this fall.
The parameters of the Senate race are already well defined. Scott will likely tell voters that his administration put a lot of people back to work. Incumbent Bill Nelson is trying to win re-election by scaring people out of voting for Scott; his daily campaign emails include scarcely a word about Nelson’s own record during his 18 years in office.
In the race for governor, it’s unclear exactly who may end up running in the primaries, but in the general election, Florida deserves a contest between Adam Putnam and Philip Levine. Both have business in their backgrounds and understand that getting government to do something means paying for it and managing the effort well. Putnam, a Republican, comes from a small-town family, but he knows and understands Florida. Levine, a Democrat, is from Miami Beach but is making an effort to get to know the rest of the state. Both men would likely bring a fair eye to the next redistricting of the state’s congressional seats, which will happen in 2020. And which the governor can veto.
The best thing for the state would be if Putnam and Levine didn’t face opponents in the primaries. This would mean that they could avoid a lot of the stupid — and alienating — posturing they’ll employ to attract “base” voters at the ideological extremes. Putnam has already embarrassed himself with appeals to NRA voters. Levine will likely try to “out climate-change” his Democratic competitors. Climate change may play well in Miami Beach, but it won’t be the issue around which to organize a statewide campaign.
It would be interesting to see how Putnam and Levine would campaign if they could start their campaigns closer to the middle of the electorate. I hope both will emphasize Florida’s gubernatorial race as a state affair that has nothing to do with the president.
Just a thought. There’s a nice quote from Albert Einstein about how small an influence reason and goodwill exert upon events in the political field.
Meanwhile, in Trend's 60th year, time marches on. Or goes around. Take your pick — are we headed into uncharted territory or on our way back to something we’ve seen before?
See other stories from Florida Trend's May issue.
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