Chamber Crystal: How Pot, Trump, and Independents Will Affect Elections in Flagler and Florida
FlaglerLive | February 25, 2016
Marian Johnson is old enough to have volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. But she’s sprightlier, funnier, and likely sharper than many a younger politician angling for office today, which is why her main advice to candidates, as she presented it at a chamber of commerce lunch in Palm Coast this afternoon, was this: know yourself, know your electorate, know the issues, and stay involved.
Johnson is the senior vice president of political strategy for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. She was the guest speaker at the Flagler chamber’s periodic Think Flagler First lunches, at the Hilton Garden Inn (those lunches are converting to a breakfast series in future), speaking to an audience of a few dozens that included several elected officials and candidates for local office, along with numerous members of the business community. Johnson’s presentation wasn’t more revealing than any consistent glean of headlines might be, but it fit in the local chamber’s sustained effort in election years to “educate our residents on the importance of voting,” as Chamber President Rebecca DeLorenzo put it.
Voter education can be a challenge in local elections, DeLorenzo said, though Flagler County’s rate of registered voters is now hovering around 90 percent.
The chamber will be hosting election-related events to that end later in the year, including what DeLorenzo calls a “hob-knob” evening with candidates ahead of the August primary (open to the public for a modest dining fee) and political debates ahead of the general election. Johnson’s presentation provided the broader context of the election season for local and state issues, though she also touched on national issues and the inevitable draw: Donald Trump.
“Nobody likes Donald Trump. Nobody likes Hillary Clinton,” she said. “Now, who’s winning Florida? Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.” (Marco Rubio‘s name was never mentioned. Trump is still running well ahead of Rubio in Florida, according to polls, with a little over two weeks before the March 15 presidential primary.) “I think it’s because Donald Trump has lost his filter. He doesn’t care what he says, how he says it, why he says it. That’s just the way it is,” Johnson said, adding that at the moment half the Florida electorate would vote for a Republican candidate for president in the abstract. (She did not say that when actual names are in play, Republican chances are less solid.)
Johnson’s numbers could be off. She made some optimistic population projections that see Flagler growing by 55,000 by 2030, producing a need for 21,000 to 31,000 net new jobs (currently, 40,300 employed people live in the county). But not even the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economics and Business Research, whose population projections are notoriously overly optimistic, puts growth nearly that high. Its latest forecast for 2030 sees Flagler’s population around 127,000, an increase of 26,000 from today. It sees the county growing by 39,000 but only by 2045.
Numbers aside, Johnson’s talk was not Flagler-specific: it could have been presented to audiences in Jacksonville, Miami or Broward, for which Johnson reserved particular scorn because, based on her polling data, Broward County has “the most unhappy people,” and “they have held that honor for many years. I can’t find anybody in Broward that’s happy. Nothing is ever going right, things are on the wrong track, nothing’s good. They’re just unhappy.” (It was a conservative’s not-too-subtle dig at one of the state’s more liberal counties, but she was addressing a largely conservative audience.) Jacksonville, Orlando and Daytona have more positives than negatives in their happiness quotient, Johnson said. She did not have data for Flagler.
“I’m going to tel you some things that I want you to take to heart because you have a unique opportunity here in Flagler County to become the leader in the state of Florida in so many ways,” Johnson said. But she did not specify what those ways are, or what Flagler County can offer the state that other counties can’t.
Johnson was concerned about the younger generation coming into the state—a trend economists and demographers usually cheer. But to Johnson, “there’s a new generation that’s coming in that doesn’t have the connection to history that many of us have had, and that’s kind of a plus in some ways, but in many ways it’s a detriment to what’s going to happen in the future.” Florida’s electorate has never been as historically minded as electorates in less transient states, but Johnson fears that the coming generations will know their history less and would then be likely to repeat it. But she did not say what she feared would be repeated, since the political history she referred to has been a generally happy one from her perspective: the various graphs and indicators she flashed on a screen showed the happy and almost happy years of the Jeb Bush and Rick Scott administrations (Johnson was not enamored of Charlie Crist), while the whole period she was addressing has been a solidly conservative era. She sees more of the same ahead, with 57 open seats in the state legislature and no predictive models that see the balance of power shifting considerably.
Johnson cautioned candidates to be aware of the electorate’s main concerns in Florida. Based on polling data, she ranked those concerns in this order: Jobs and the economy, education, health care, immigration, and gun control.
“Candidates, people want to hear you talk about these issues. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to have an opinion, it means you’ve got to be able to talk about it,” Johnson said.
And she noted the growing power of voters who identify neither as Republicans nor as Democrats, though again her numbers were inaccurate. She said in the last 20 years the number of voters in Florida registered as Republicans has grown by 52 percent, Democrats by 39 percent, and Independents by 473 percent.
Not quite. According to the Florida Division of Elections, between 1996 and 2016, those who register Republicans have increased by 26 percent, Democrats by 20 percent, and Independents by 202 percent. But Johnson was right about the trend: at this rate, Independents will outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in a few years.
For now, independents are the deciding factor in Florida politics, especially in presidential elections: how independents vote is how the narrowly divided state will swing. They are also a deciding factor in ballot initiative such as the measure this year to legalize medical marijuana, which Johnson said will be bringing out younger and independent voters. She cautioned candidates to be prepared to address those demographics. She made no predictions today except one: that measure “is going to pass, unless someone puts on a campaign to halt it.”
Johnson closed with another plea to local candidates: “You are so important not only to Flagler County, you are important to the state of Florida, you’re going to be setting examples in your county that others are going to follow. I urge you to stay involved, I urge you to get involved now if you’re not, because the decisions you’re going to make are going to affect counties around you.”
But again, she did not say why or how. But she did note that one of the political candidates she’d once interviewed conducted his whole interview as a ventriloquist. “I’m telling you, all kinds of people run for office,” Johnson said, as if announcing something surprising to her Flagler County audience.
Clearly, she has not had a look at some of the local candidates in the running this year.