‘Free Votes’ in the 2016 General Election: What Will It All Mean?

‘Free Votes’ in the 2016 General Election: What Will It All Mean?

Many of my rank-and-file supporters, the ones who didn’t “do politics,” knew I was going to win. How could I not?

For many Tampa folks, across the city, I was a good guy, honest, hard-working, smart, someone who actually cared about the future of neighborhoods and of the city. In my eight years on the council, I’d earned their respect and their trust.

How could I not win?

Precisely because many of my supporters believed I couldn’t lose.

So I lost . . . by one vote.

That’s long ago now. I often tell the story for the civics lesson and for the comic effect of recounting how someone working for my opponent told me, on Election Day, that I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. She was working for my opponent because of social ties, and was confident that her one vote wouldn’t make a difference.

The memory of that election came swiftly to mind as I read a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Giovanni Russonello. The article examines the notion, popular in some circles (particularly Hillary Clinton supporters), that Secretary Clinton is headed toward a landslide victory.

Peters and Russonello focus on the mathematics of contemporary politics in a sharply divided, deeply and geographically partisan nation. No matter how badly Trump may be doing in nationwide and swing state polls (even if that continues to November), the depth of devotion of Republican voters to the party and the strength of the revulsion most Republicans and some others experience when they contemplate a Hillary Clinton presidency is likely to deprive the Democrats of the kind of landslide victory President Reagan achieved in 1984 and President Johnson achieved in 1964.

Back then, many a Democrat could consider voting for a Republican, and many a Republican for a Democrat. Today’s sharp ideological divisions between the parties did not yet exist in 1964 and were only beginning to develop in 1984.

There is something else tucked in this story that merits considerable attention: the notion of what Democratic pollster Peter Hart calls a “free vote.”

I think that could be one of her [Hillary Clinton’s] problems. If it looks all too easy and all too comfortable, there may be voters who will say, “I don’t want her to win by a landslide.”

Free voting may occur whenever a voter does not believe that his or her vote will influence who wins. In a primary, if a voter believes one candidate has a clear path to victory, that voter may vote for another candidate who represents a criticism of the direction the winner is going . . . even if the voter actually wouldn’t want the candidate they voted for to win the nomination.

In the general election, when one candidate is believed to have the election locked up, some voters will cross major party lines or opt for third-party options or even write in a candidate just to send a message to the putative winner that many voters aren’t pleased with his or her performance.

I think this is what happened to the late Congressman Sam Gibbons of Tampa back in the 1990s. Congressman Gibbons was a bona fide WWII hero, a Southern Democrat who advocated for civil rights (also a risky endeavor) and the “Father of USF,” among many other things.

When a young Republican by the name of Mark Sharpe was offered up as the sacrificial lamb to run against Gibbons in the fall of 1992, he fell 20 points short.

In the rematch in 1994, however, he narrowed the gap to four points.

Congressman Gibbons may have read the message of this narrowing margin. Or he may just have wanted to retire.

In either case, in 1996, Sharpe lost badly to a Democrat and former Florida House member, Jim Davis, who won 58% of the vote and nearly every precinct.

In 1994, Tampa residents thought that Sam Gibbons would win regardless. Some of them, at least, were looking for change. It wasn’t necessarily that they wanted Mark Sharpe (though I will note here that he has gone on to his own fine career in public service); it was that they wanted to send a message, and they felt “free” to do so.

In this election cycle, many voters may feel “free” to cast their ballots to send messages, precisely because many voters (a solid majority, in the case of both Trump and Clinton) are dissatisfied with their choices.

The challenge for parties, candidates and observers alike, when the electoral dust settles, will be to understand what we voters meant by how we cast our votes.