Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Charlie Crist goes negative in ads and his own popularity

Governor sunshine is losing his shine.

Once known for his likability, Charlie Crist is now viewed less favorably than favorably in Quinnipiac University’s poll of the Florida governor’s race released last week. Crist now trails Gov. Rick Scott 44-46 percent, virtually a tie.

Scott’s heavily negative ad campaign deserves a goodly amount of credit or blame for that.

Since Crist entered the race in November, Scott’s campaign and allies have placed more than $41 million in TV commercials that have or will run. Crist is at $16.7 million. The vast majority of the $57 million ad campaign has and will be negative.

Crist, just now ramping up his spending, is targeting the fraud at Scott’s former hospital company.

“Taxpayers got cheated. But Rick Scott bought a beachfront mansion, a private jet and a Montana ranch," Crist’s latest spot says. "He's just too shady for the Sunshine State."

But sun isn’t shining out of Crist’s mouth, either.

Crist was always a tough campaigner. But, in his various runs for office, there was a velvet lining to his steel glove. Against Scott right now, there’s little velvet to be seen. For a candidate who made himself the cheery “optimist,” Crist’s ads are undermining his brand.

Starting in the week ending Sept. 21, Crist and his allies were up with negative broadcast ads in every major media market for the first time this campaign season.

At the same time, Scott for the first time went up with positive ads in every major media market. In that case, it’s a spot featuring his wife, Ann Scott, lauding her husband. During a speech Friday in Miami at the Latin Builders Association, Scott spent more time talking about his upbringing and his record as governor rather than quickly attacking Crist — a rarity for the governor.

Scott’s increase in positive spots is a sign that the incumbent’s standing is shaky at best.

In the past 40 public polls of the race, Scott has cracked 46 percent support only three times, including Quinnipiac’s latest survey. Crist has polled at 46 percent or higher 10 times.

Before Crist jumped in, Quinnipiac found in June 2013 that he led Scott by 10 percentage points, and 48 percent saw the Democrat favorably while 31 percent saw him unfavorably. That gave Crist a favorability index of plus-17. Scott’s index was minus-2.

Scott welcomed Crist’s November entrance to the race with a $1 million negative ad buy. By month’s end, Crist’s lead was down to 7 points. Crist’s favorability index plummeted to plus-2 and Scott’s was minus-3.

Now Scott leads by 2. His favorability index is minus-6. But Crist’s is minus-9.

Knowing this day would come and knowing he’d be outspent if he weren’t careful, Crist held much of his fire for weeks on TV as Scott pounded him. Crist began increasing his media buys ahead of this week, when absentee ballots show up in mailboxes in Florida and voting by mail officially begins.

Democratic insiders who aren’t part of the campaign are happy Crist is firing back and going for the throat, but they privately fear it’s too negative too late.

Crist isn’t making a clear case in paid media for why he should be governor, just why Scott shouldn’t. Crist has been counting on Scott’s high negatives (the governor is as despised by liberals as President Barack Obama is by conservatives) to carry him.

It’s probably not enough. A challenger ultimately needs to win the love of voters, not bank heavily on their hatred of the incumbent.

Otherwise, we would have had John Kerry and Mitt Romney as presidents.