Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: With $50 million in TV ad spending, Rick Scott-Charlie Crist race is one big marketing campaign

Florida governor’s race television advertising spending.
Florida governor’s race television advertising spending. Miami

Another week. Another $10.4 million thrown in the fire we call television advertising.

Florida’s governor’s race is now a $50 million-plus commercial spectacle, with more than 71 percent of that spending from Gov. Rick Scott.

During the week that ended Friday, Scott dropped an additional $8 million for current and future ad buys. That’s about a 23 percent increase for the Republican, dwarfing Democrat Charlie Crist’s ad-buy increase of 17 percent, or almost $2.5 million.

If TV ads decided the governor’s race, Scott would win in a landslide.

There’s more to an election than running commercials, however, just as there’s more to winning a war than just using air power. Like a military campaign, a political campaign needs infantry — the “ground game” or “field operations” of paid staff and volunteers who phone voters and reach out to them face to face.

But the latter depends on the former. And so, therefore, does the election.

Think of the old military adage: Fire without maneuver is inconclusive, maneuver without fire is suicide. A Florida campaign that exists only on air isn’t enough; an off-air campaign goes nowhere.

“The only way field really matters is in a tight race,” said Ashley Walker, President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign manager in 2012 and 2008. “A good field operation will give you about 2 points. It might not sound like a lot. But in a close race, it is.”

This is a tight race. Scott is ahead by about 2 percentage points — 42.8 percent to Crist’s 40.9 percent — according to a Miami Herald aggregation of nine of the most-recent public polls. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie pulls about 4.8 percentage points.

Once trailing in the polls, Scott pulled marginally ahead in the same way he won the governor’s mansion in 2010 as a once-unknown: through massive TV ad buys. His campaigns attest to the power of commercials — still the best way to reach voters in Florida. It is the size of a small nation, with 10 big media markets and one of the nation’s most diverse electorates.

Whether it’s Scott or Crist, candidates here resemble products packaged by slick marketing campaigns that sell them in the same way that Crest touts toothpaste or Honda hawks cars. Perhaps the only major difference between Scott and Crist and Buffalo Wild Wings is that the restaurant spends most of its money telling you how great it is instead of how Hooters sucks.

Scott and Crist, however, spend most of their money demonizing each other, often in misleading ways.

Not only is the medium the message, so is the media market. Here’s what we can glean from the broadcast and cable ad buys, which also include orders for ads in the future, in the five largest markets:

TAMPA BAY

This is Florida’s granddaddy media market. It’s Florida’s largest and most-influential because of the high level of active, yet centrist, voters. It’s also Crist’s home base.

The St. Petersburg resident’s home county of Pinellas, the state’s sixth-largest by voter registration, was one of only four counties he won outright in 2010 when he ran as a no-party-affiliation U.S. Senate candidate against Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

To kill Crist’s campaign in its crib, Scott has trained more firepower here than anywhere else since March: $10.8 million. In all, $14.7 million has been spent here by allies of the governor and of Crist, who has burned less than $3.9 million in the market. Scott has spent more here against Crist than anywhere else, but Crist doesn’t have the finances to match him and figures he’ll have to save his money for other markets.

Still, Crist ramped up ad spending in a week by 15 percent. But Scott outdid him, increasing his spend by 29 percent in a week.

ORLANDO

With Tampa to the west, Orlando is the eastern end of the independent swing area of Florida, the I-4 Corridor. If a candidate wins big in the corridor, he wins. But a small win in I-4, as with Mitt Romney in 2012’s presidential race when he lost Florida overall, guarantees nothing.

Scott poured it on here in the past week, lifting the size of his buy by 46 percent, or $2.5 million. Crist inflated his ad spending by 20 percent, or about $640,000. In total since March, Scott has run or bought $7.9 million of TV time to Crist’s $3.9 million here.

Together, Orlando and Tampa Bay account for 54 percent of all ad spending from the pro-Scott and pro-Crist forces in the race.

WEST PALM BEACH

This Palm Beach County-based market is a mixing zone between liberal Southeast Florida and more-independent and conservative areas to the north. Like Pinellas, Palm Beach County went for Crist in 2010.

But while Pinellas is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats (35 and 36 percent, respectively, of the county voter rolls), Palm Beach County has far more Democrats (44 percent) than Republicans (28 percent). Independents outnumber the GOP by a percentage point. Palm Beach is also huge, the state’s third-most populous county by voter registration.

Compared to its neighbors to the south, the West Palm Beach market is far cheaper and has far-more reliable voters. It’s a great way to make a dollar stretch. So it has seen $7.2 million in ads since March.

Scott has upped his buy significantly here, too, boosting it 27 percent to Crist’s 18 percent in a week. Unlike Orlando and Tampa, however, Crist has felt the need to keep more parity here and has spent a total of $3.1 million to Scott’s $4.1 million.

JACKSONVILLE

This is the heart of Scott’s base: conservative North Florida. And Scott has made sure to shore it up with nearly $3 million in spending, increasing his buy by 35 percent in a week.

Unlike the conservative Panama City market, where Crist hasn’t bothered spending ad money yet, Crist is trying to stay more competitive in Jacksonville and has pumped in about $1 million, an increase of 23 percent.

On a percentage basis, Crist has boosted spending higher than Scott in other North Florida media markets (Tallahassee, Gainesville and Pensacola), partly to reach out to the region’s large African-American communities. In Jacksonville, for instance, about 28 percent of all registered voters are black. The Crist campaign is hoping to keep African-American turnout high because 9 out of 10 black voters are likely to vote Democrat.

MIAMI-FORT LAUDERDALE

This media market is Florida’s most-expensive and broadcasts to the state’s two most-populous and most-Democratic counties.

But voters here are among the least reliable. That was a killer for Crist’s predecessor, Alex Sink, in 2010. Conversely, a large turnout in this market is more than enough to overcome a candidate who wins in I-4, which Obama showed in 2012 when he won Miami-Dade by 208,459 votes (he carried Florida with an overall margin of just 74,309).

There’s a reason that both candidates’ running mates, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and former county Democratic chairwoman Annette Taddeo, are from Miami-Dade. Broward County sided with Crist in the 2010 Senate race.

For weeks, Crist did little as Scott started spending big in Miami-Fort Lauderdale. Scott went for the jugular, concentrating his firepower on ads that highlighted Crist’s ties to convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein of Fort Lauderdale. One of the ads is misleading, but the TV stations keep running it, forcing Crist to push back with his own buys.

The result: Crist increased his spending here by 264 percent, or $445,000, while Scott’s buy just nudged up 5 percent. Overall, Scott’s spending in Miami still dwarfs the Crist campaign: $2.8 million to $615,000.

Up until now, all the spending in the media markets (the 10th is Scott’s conservative home base of Naples-Fort Myers) has been relatively small compared to what’s coming.

The election is basically here.

Absentee ballots for overseas voters started going out Saturday. Vote-by-mail ballots for those in the country will start going out at the beginning of the month.

It’s a sign that Florida doesn’t have a single Election Day, Nov. 4 this year. It has Election Days. More than 30 of them. More than half of the elections ballots will likely be cast early, by mail or in person. That’s why the candidates are ramping up their spending. And their negativity.

While Scott has bought himself better positioning in the race, it has been costly.

When Crist first officially entered the race in November, Scott had $17 million in the bank to Crist’s $0. Now Scott’s cash-on-hand advantage is less than $1 million, according to the candidates’ campaign and political committee accounts.

But Scott is independently wealthy and can spend tens of millions more of his own money. Right now he’s relying on the Republican Party of Florida to run his ads. Crist is counting on the Florida Democratic Party.

There are still a lot of unknowns and, according to the polls, undecided voters. The election, though upon us, has six intense weeks and three debates to go.

So, as they say in TV world, stay tuned. But even if you don’t want to, there’s a chance the candidates’ ads will force you to tune in anyway.

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