Politics

Four lessons from Florida’s nasty, record-setting governor’s race

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, left, and incumbent Rick Scott.
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, left, and incumbent Rick Scott. Miami

This weird, oh-so-Florida race should come to an end Tuesday, though it’s anybody’s guess whether Republican Gov. Rick Scott will win a second term or whether former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist will pull off one of the most extraordinary political comebacks ever.

It’s not even certain we’ll have a clear winner by the end of Tuesday. Nobody does razor-thin elections like The Recount State, and all signs point to a tied race.

Still, even with the biggest question unanswered, we can draw some conclusions as the most expensive and negative race in Florida history finally winds down. Here are four lessons:

1. Money matters so much — to reach so few.

Never before have two campaigns spent so much to move the needle so little.

Scott started his TV campaign in March, but the real start of the ad blitz came in July when Crist went on TV as well. It was a margin-of-error race then — Crist up by an average of 2.2 percentage point according to RealClearPolitics.com — and it’s a margin of error race today — Crist leading by an average of 0.6 percentage points — after nearly $77 million in TV spending by Scott and his GOP allies and $40 million by Crist and his allies.

The vast majority of Florida voters will make their selection based on party affiliation alone. So for months, Crist and Scott have been battling over a sliver of voters that represents maybe 5 percent of the electorate.

The state has become so polarized politically that future governors may consider themselves lucky if they ever draw approval ratings of more than 45 percent.

That’s not to say money doesn’t matter. It matters enormously. If Scott spent three times as much as Crist instead of twice as much, he likely would be heading more comfortably into re-election.

Down ballot, consider that Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi is a polarizing figure with a fair amount of baggage. If Democrat George Sheldon had the money to run a campaign commercial, she might have been more vulnerable than she seems to be. Likewise, credible Democratic candidates in competitive legislative districts were so outgunned financially by Republicans that they hardly had a chance.

Florida is ultimately a 50/50 purple state, and when Democrats are remotely competitive financially (Al Gore in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Alex Sink in 2010), elections are likely to wind up virtually tied.

2. Early voting has redefined Florida elections.

The trend has been building over the past decade, but it looks like this will be the first statewide general election where a majority of votes are cast before Election Day, which has turned into Election Month. You can’t overstate the difference.

The rhythm and fundamental rules about campaigns are different. Only a few years ago, national and state parties used to crow about their “72-hour programs” to mobilize voters in the final days of the campaign. Today any Florida campaign focused on the final 72 hours is likely doomed, because the race is almost over by then.

Debates matter less when scheduled close to November, as we saw when Scott’s epic “Fangate” slip up barely registered in the polls. Last-minute negative attacks are almost pointless.

And campaigns can see the results of one another’s ground games in real time as they track how many Republicans and how many Democrats cast votes daily in the weeks leading up to “Election Day.”

3. The uncertain risk of negativity.

Florida has never before seen a race so negative. The constant attacks left marks on the candidates and on the state’s climate for governing that we can’t fully gauge yet.

We know that more voters have an unfavorable view of both Crist and Scott than favorable views. We also know that the last time someone was narrowly elected governor after a bruising campaign, Rick Scott in 2010, he never really recovered or managed to gain widespread trust among Floridians.

Crist is probably the only person Democrats could have nominated who may emerge still viable after tens of millions of dollars in negative ads. The former governor and attorney general was already well enough known that Scott could weaken him significantly, but not define him completely.

We think relentlessly negative campaigns tamp down turnout, but we may be wrong. In most areas of the state, early voting in-person and by-mail turnout is higher than the last midterm election. We don’t yet know, however, whether it’s a case of merely shifting Election Day voters to early voters, much like squeezing a balloon.

Especially in close races, losing campaigns are left to ponder where they fell short, what else they could have done. Here’s one question, regardless of who wins, that should be at the top of the second-guessing: Isn’t it possible that replacing some of the monotonous attack ads with a few million dollars in positive spots about your agenda for Florida might have put you over the top?

4. Convenient voting makes a difference.

This is the first election in several cycles where Republican leaders in Tallahassee did not try to make it harder to vote. That’s in part because their efforts back-fired in 2012 and motivated Democrats to turn out in the face of obstacles while also giving Florida another black eye in terms of running elections.

So what’s the result of backing off restrictions on early voting hours and locations and not attempting clumsy purges of the voter rolls? Higher turnout among early voters, notably among minority voters, who are more likely to vote Democratic, and in Democratic strongholds.

It may not be enough to overcome the Republican turnout machine, but it’s a reminder of why Republican leaders wanted to enact restrictions on early voting in the first place.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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