Apart from the hot dog stand, the other more established historical tradition in Lakeland's Munn Park is an election-time event called "Politics in the Park." Like the Ames Iowa poll last weekend, it's a straw poll. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the event brings together Florida's candidates from U.S. Senate all the way down to Polk County commissioner. Folks buy tickets and vote on a "straw" ballot and politicos get a chance to mingle and sweat with Lakeland voters. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson attended, as did then-Congresswoman Katherine Harris.
Thing is, it's rigged. Even back when Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles vied for votes in the 1994 straw poll, it was even more of a spectacle than these sorts of things usually are. The local GOP bought tickets like crazy--hundreds. Then the Chiles campaign responded and bought more tickets. Then the GOP returned fire. Ultimately the Bush people won out. As it has grown, Lakeland and the rest of Polk County has followed the rest of the old Solid South into the arms of the Republican Party. Silly as it is, at least the chicanery got more people to the event and involved in the election.
It hurt Governor Chiles to lose his hometown vote for the first time in years. But he knew by then that Democratic statewide victory in Florida came in two flavors--Dade and Broward. Even if he lost Lakeland's vote, he had earned their respect.