Florida to be ground zero in 2012

Last Friday, I had the privilege of participating in the biennial elections conference convened by the Graduate Program in Political Campaigning of the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida.

This symposium, titled “The Election Landscape 2010-2012: Reflections and Projections,” smartly combines the perspectives of working consultants, academics and journalists. While some of the perspectives offered by presenters were national, the most interesting and forwarding-looking predictions made clear that Florida will be ground zero in the 2012 presidential competition.

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Looking back, Democratic pollster David Beattie refuted the traditional notion that “all politics is local,” presenting evidence that the 2010 elections were nationalized, providing the Republicans some unexpected wins at the state legislative level. His analysis suggested that 2010 was an even bigger bonanza for the GOP than the banner year of 1994. In Florida, Beattie focused on Democratic failures to get older white Democrats to the polls.

Several progressive ballot measures approved statewide garnered more votes than did top-of-the-ticket Republicans, reported Damien Filer, a consultant to Democrat and liberal measures. This might have been the only good news from Florida for his side in 2010. Democrat pollster Jim Kitchens followed Filer by clarifying his controversial post-election blog posting (now deleted, he said) that “America is dead,” contending that we’re simply ungovernable, with no party able to move forward after a gridlocked outcome. He blames “the non-compromising base” of each party for the mess.

University of South Florida Professor Susan MacManus, the state’s leading political pundit, refuted the notion that the Tea Party is a monolithic force. She also presented some very interesting exit poll results that contrasted views of the supporters of the two gubernatorial candidates. Backers of Republican winner Jim Scott said the economy is in a long-term decline. Those who voted for Democrat Alex Sink were less pessimistic, choosing to describe the economy as in a “normal downturn.” (Her pollster, Beattie, was candid enough to admit that some voters didn’t realize that his client was a “she,” because there wasn’t enough money available to advertise her broadly enough while fending off Republican attacks from millionaire businessman Scott.)

Republican Michael Luethy presented provocative predictions for battleground states in 2012, based on his analysis of legislative election results from 2010. He’s looking for North Carolina to be an especially critical state. Republicans there may unexpectedly have their hands full.

Rod Smith, the former state legislator and newly elected chairman of the Democratic Party, was positively ebullient after recent secret meetings with Obama insiders in Washington. He believes that Obama strategists concur with his notion that the road to the White House begins somewhere between I-75 and I-95, in central Florida. Smith also has to get Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) reelected and seemed focused, along with Obama’s team, on the “blocking and tackling” of voter registration and higher turnout, especially from Hispanics, to achieve his political goals.

Dave Wolfson, a GOP consultant, had much to complain about, despite the good year for Republicans. He worried aloud that we don’t do social media very well. And he complained loudly that key Republicans failed to defeat Amendments 5 and 6, which will take redistricting away from a Republican-controlled Legislature. This will result in lost congressional and legislative seats, he worries, when two (or even three) Republicans are paired in redrawn districts. He also worried aloud that a spirited, late GOP primary in 2012 to run against Nelson could leave the GOP survivor penniless and bruised, vulnerable in November.

Perhaps the most interesting subtext of the day was the bipartisan notion that foreign affairs and national security concerns might work to protect President Obama from voter scrutiny for his bungling of the economic recovery.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.