Florida Politics

Levine's money has him ahead in Florida's Democratic primary. But will his lead hold?

Democratic candidates for governor of Florida, clockwise from upper left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King.  Not shown: Jeff Greene.
Democratic candidates for governor of Florida, clockwise from upper left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King. Not shown: Jeff Greene.

Early in the campaign to become Florida's next governor, as tongues wagged over Trump administration talk about opening up oil drilling along the coast of the Sunshine State, three of the four candidates in the Democratic primary issued sternly worded campaign statements and gave press interviews condemning the proposal.

Philip Levine did that, too. And then he spent $375,000 airing a commercial in which he promised to hold oil exploration at bay.

The next month, when Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran launched a controversial commercial on sanctuary cities, Levine spent a quarter-million on TV just to counter with his own message on immigration. And when a horrific shooting in Parkland placed guns back in the center of American politics just a few days later, Levine pledged to ban assault weapons — in a commercial that cost his campaign more than $700,000.

As his opponents save their money for the final weeks of the Democratic primary — when voters are more attuned to the fact that an election is under way to choose their next governor — Miami Beach's independently wealthy former mayor has gone on a spending spree. He more than doubled Gwen Graham's $3.4 million in expenses through the start of April, throwing $7 million into social media ads, television spots and other forms of advertising capitalizing on issues as they arose. On Tuesday, he celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week by releasing yet another commercial featuring his mother talking about teacher pay raises.

It's a move straight out of the current governor's playbook: Use your own money and go on air early and often. In return, voters have rewarded Levine with a lead in the polls.

"It’s not just TV advertising for a candidate. We are doing TV advertising to seize moments," said Christian Ulvert, a political consultant for the Levine campaign.

For all the money he's spent, Levine had roughly $3 million more in the bank at the beginning of April. He says he raised another $2 million last month thanks in part to his ability to match donations with his own cash. He should have enough money to continue traveling the state on an aggressive campaign that has opened offices around Florida and for a while was reporting $10,000 a week on payroll.

Actors portray the shooting of a young woman in this ad from Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s political action committee, Watchdog PAC.

When his opponents choose to finally start spending on TV, he should be able to keep spending.

And yet, for all of Levine's money and touring, and the fact that he's had the airwaves exclusively to himself for months, his lead is far from insurmountable. None of his opponents — Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham and Chris King — dispute that he's ahead, but neither do they worry that he's pulling away.

By his own internal polling, Levine is taking about one in every four Democratic votes, with more than a third of all voters still undecided. His campaign on Monday touted a third-party poll showing him at just 20 percent, albeit with a six point lead over a hypothetical field that included undeclared former congressman Patrick Murphy — and behind a split ticket with Murphy and former Republican congressman David Jolly.

"Yikes," was the response from Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant working for the Gillum campaign. On Medium and on Twitter, Cate has followed Levine's spending and climb in the polls, and has pointed out that Levine's spending has consistently handed him about 3 percent support for every million dollars spent on TV.

Cate notes that's far short of what Rick Scott achieved in 2010, when $3.5 million got a then-unknown candidate to 24 percent in April in the governor's race. And that's also with Levine holding television time all to his lonesome. Though Cate has questioned whether the numbers are a sign of television's waning influence in the digital age, he says it's fair to ask whether Levine's lead will hold once his competitors go on air with their own commercials — some of which may attack him and knock his numbers down — and voters begin to pay more attention to the race.

"It’s not going to be a secret come August who any of these candidates are," Cate said. "We’ll have debates. Everyone will be on TV. And primary voters will be able to see whose values line up the best."

But even assuming television is losing its power of persuasion, it remains the most effective means for mass influencing the vote.

Philip Levine announced his candidacy for Florida governor in a packed room of supporters, friends, and family members in Wynwood on Wednesday, November 1, 2017.

Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida, says campaigns hoping to save their money and come from behind can find it difficult to do so against a candidate who can continue funding commercials. In Levine's case, his own wealth can help him if fundraising runs dry — something that devastated the Charlie Crist gubernatorial campaign in 2014 when Scott dumped his own money into the race in October.

"I’ve seen the argument of 'We'll catch up later' play out a lot of times a lot in the past. My friend Bill McCollum thought he’d catch up later with Rick Scott" in the 2010 Republican primary, said Wilson. "A lot of candidates in the 2016 [presidential] race thought 'We’ll catch up with Donald Trump when we spend money.' "

Levine's campaign isn't looking in the rear view. It announced Tuesday that it's putting $1 million behind its latest commercial.

One reason for optimism: Levine's internal polls — which other campaigns have questioned — suggest he's built double-digit leads in Tampa and South Florida. Levine's campaign is also arguing that the former mayor is the front-runner in the general election, saying he polls well against Republicans Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam.

But Wilson, the Republican strategist, is skeptical of those numbers.

"He’s spent a tremendous amount of money in a short period of time with a highly targeted, super-progressive message that’s not terribly mindful of the general election," Wilson said. "I get that he’s trying to establish himself as the left-of-left guy, and that's probably what you want to do even though a lot of the stuff he’s talking about is political death in the general. But if you think you can win with everything south of I-4 exclusively, then good luck."

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