COLD OPEN: I remember the first campaign I ever worked on. It was an unpaid internship on a United States Congressional race a dozen years ago, mostly licking thank you note envelopes and cold calling potential donors.
Eventually I worked my way into making on-air and in-print appearances as a communication worker. From there I learned how to coordinate teams for canvassing and phone banking as a field operator. For the last five years, I’ve run my own business managing it all for candidates on the Naturecoast. I’ll never forget that feeling, though, and sometimes it still comes back to me - of having no idea what I was doing.
TITLE SEQUENCE: This is Bobby Winsler - welcome to my weekly podcast covering the conversation in Citrus County. Candidates are beginning to file. In the last two weeks, there have been two more for state house of representatives and a new entry into the county commission race. Two people in the race for state house already have campaign experience but over half the candidates are political newcomers. This show is going to focus on how the common man can navigate the campaign trail and what it takes to be a candidate for office. Let’s start with this.
“I could do it better,” I’m sure you’ve said about some type of elected position from mosquito control board to president. And maybe you could. The big hurdle, though, is the getting elected part. You might have even considered running in the past or you might be thinking about it if the timing is right. But where would you start? How does a campaign get going?
In the wake of successfully managing Mike Prendergast’s campaign for sheriff in 2016, I started my business Winsler Consulting and have run over a dozen local races since. I’ve made numerous mistakes, seen what I hadn’t previously thought possible, but also had some success, my candidates have a 9 & 5 record counting primaries and general elections.
This isn’t about me though, it’s about what you would do if the candidate was you. Think about it for a second. What is the first thing you would do?
The literal answer to that question is to pick a bank that you’ll want to open an account with, go to the Supervisor of Elections office and fill out a few forms including one that will need that bank information, get your forms approved then take them to that bank to open an account. That’s it. The rest is in the voters' hands.
Okay so maybe there’s a little more to it than that. But it might not be about what you think. Knowledge of the issues helps but isn’t imperative to win. Campaigns aren’t really about competing ideas but rather brand loyalty. The demographics of Citrus make both difficult to achieve.
The county has almost 118,000 registered voters, a staggering amount for a county of only 150,000 people since you have to consider the overall population includes kids under the age of 18 who can’t register to vote.
The party break down is just over 61,000 Republicans, which is over 50%. You might think this makes sense that it is a majority Republican area but that’s actually a rare occurrence for either party to be a true majority since usually a third party, whether it is no party affiliated, libertarian, or independent, usually takes a sizeable percentage that keeps either major party from achieving the majority.
In fact, in Citrus County, these non-major party registrants make up the second largest voting bloc with nearly 30,000 people and then registered Democrats are third with almost 27,000 people.
Because the registration is so lopsided and about 90% of people vote for their party’s nominee regardless of who the candidate is, the winner of the Republican primary has been the winner of the general election since after 2012 in Citrus County. Let’s get back to the two aspects of being a candidate. Policy positions and branding.
If everyone is a Republican in the race that truly decides the outcome of the general election, then both these are difficult to discern. Most of your positions are likely to be the same as your opponents and everyone has the Republican affiliation, which is the easiest brand to signal to voters in a general election.
So the race then becomes a bit like trying to sell cereal or beer. Each has its own taste and gimmick but it’s roughly the same product in a crowded market. Brands use nonsense terms like Triple Hops Brewed or Cold as the Rockies in order to distinguish themselves but these selling points don’t really mean anything other than to keep your attention focused on their brand when you’re in the beer aisle at the store.
Our Florida House candidates are going to face roughly the same challenge. There are already four Republicans filed, but expect at least seven before June. It will be fascinating to see how each brands themselves to appeal to voters like you and me.
Congratulations are in order. Gerry Mulligan was named Chronicle Citizen of the Year in a decision that surprised no one, but it’s well deserved so this is coming off as sarcastic but I do mean a sincere congratulations to Gerry. It’s not easy to run a newspaper, particularly not under new ownership as the Chronicle is discovering now as it continues to struggle in the wake of Kentucky-based Paxton Media Group purchasing the paper last June. If you want to know why it’s not easy, I suggest you read the Hot Corner which happens to be directly below the editorial in the commentary section explaining why Gerry was the right choice for the honor. The hot corner was, to the Chronicle’s credit, people complaining about the Chronicle’s previous Sunday edition. Here are some highlights:
First: “I also noticed that the movie listings are missing even though the front page says that they can be found on Page A14, it’s a little disturbing.”
Then: “I think it’s time you get your act together and put out a decent paper, and your fonts are terrible. I hope you have a good day.”
Lastly: “I mean, y’all are just going dad-gum downhill. Have a good day.”
I think it’s a remarkable testament to our area that two of these anonymous complaints ended with such pleasant exits but the message is equally as consistent.
All of these have something else in common if you read them in their entirety. They are about the structure of the paper. A Parade insert is missing, the comics have changed, your fonts are awful, I need the Sudoku, it goes on and on. My biggest criticism of the Chronicle, however, and my reason for starting the Concurrent, has to do with that editorial above the hot corner.
It’s titled: Mulligan deserving of top citizen honor for influential career. The headline refers to work done starting the United Way and spearheading the efforts for the YMCA, all of which are amazing. But it’s a weird adjective to use when describing someone who worked a career in journalism.
The media, a broad term that includes advertising and public relations, can influence. But journalism, and print journalism in particular, is worried about the opposite of influence. Outside of the opinion section, their job is not to influence but to inform, as objectively as possible. The Chronicle has never been good at this at all, at least not in politics and not in the five years since I’ve lived here.
Take the sheriff’s race as an example. The paper endorsed Chuck Kanhel in 2016 because he knew the area better than Mike Prendergast who had only lived in Citrus for three years, and then endorsed Mel Eakley, who had lived in Citrus less than two years, over Prendergast in 2020, all the while positive stories about the sheriff’s office all but disappeared from the front page in the weeks leading up to the election cycle. These actions are completely untethered from journalistic principle and tied instead to personal preference. And what do we do when we have a preference? We try to influence others. It’s not just political candidates. Also in the commentary section was a piece by Crystal River mayor Joe Meek and city manager Ken Frink. Love Mayor Meek and him and Mr. Frink are doing a wonderful job with the city. But if you’ve read the paper all this week, it will begin to feel like a public relations brochure on behalf of the city rather than a newspaper. This is again transcending the line of informing people into influencing. The narrative this builds is discussed in our Concurrent Sunday editorial.
In conclusion, Gerry absolutely deserved the award. But we shouldn’t overlook the Chronicle’s own wording of looking back on his career because we might miss a chance to make the legacy he leaves behind even better if we strive to build a newspaper into an informative publication rather than a persuasive one.