Democratic pollster Dave Beattie ran for his local board of education when he was only 18 years old. It would be the first of many successful campaigns on which hed work, and the 41-year-old said that experience in high school propelled him to his career at the nexus of politics and polling.
"Knowing that I didn't want to be 23 and working on the Hill and self-important because I was one of four people in the world that understood our soybean policy or whatever it was," he said, we "went down and lived in the [Florida] Keys after college for a couple of years."
Beattie worked on a boat in the Bahamas and then, after getting a Coast Guard license, was a boat captain and scuba-diving instructor in Key Largo, Fla.
"He was one of the most outgoing, energetic instructors we've ever had, and that was 15 years ago that he was here," recalled Rob Haff, co-owner of Sea Dwellers Dive Center. "He just loved his job. What we do is fun. People are instructors because it is fun," he said. "Most people that do it enjoy their job, but not like Dave. He lived for it. He loved every single minute of it when he got in here."
When he started his political career in high school, Beattie was as a Republican.
"There's an important role for government and that is to protect people from bullies," he said. "What I often kid Republicans with is: I switched parties in '96 because I believe in fiscal responsibility and personal freedom, so I couldn't be a Republican."
After some time in the Florida Keys, Beattie went to graduate school (where he first registered as a Democrat) and studied with the legendary pollster Bill Hamilton.
Hamilton offered him a job in coastal Fernandina Beach, Fla.
"He knew polling was what I wanted to do," Beattie said. "One thing led to another, and I've been here ever since."
Interviews with Beattie's clients, winners and losers, in Florida and around the country, reveal a pollster who's serious about his work but remains as enthusiastic about politics as he was about diving. Another theme that emerges: Beattie's character.
"He has a great deal of integrity," former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said. "David Beattie never has asked me to change the way I thought about anything. But he's challenged the way I talked about how I thought."
Ritter explained that through extensive polling and focus groups, Beattie and the campaign came up with five different groups of Colorado voters that would go to the polls in 2006. They zoomed in on two types of independents who could sway the vote: government pragmatists, who wanted a leaner, better government; and moral pragmatists, who wanted the same thing but also cared about social issues.
"I've never seen anybody do as good a job since then, or even before then, of thinking about how you have a message that resonates with the people you actually need to win statewide," Ritter said.
Ritter won by 17 points in 2006 but chose not to run for re-election in 2010.
Wasserman Schultz, who has worked with Beattie since she was in the state Legislature, noted his cool under fire. "Campaigns are pretty stressful environments," she said. "Having someone who is as levelheaded as he is, someone who doesn't always sound the alarm bells and push the panic button, someone who can really give you good advice on when it's time to be concerned," is essential.
And even though the Sunshine State is a politically polarized place, Beattie has a lot of fans on the other side of the aisle.