FL Senate: Charlie's Comeback (and how he could be stopped)

If there is only one person in the world for whom the oil spill disaster in the Gulf is a blessing in disguise, that man is Charlie Crist.

From photos of the Governor surveying the spill to soundbites of him demanding full compensation for Florida's spill related damages, Crist's handling of the spill has offered him the chance to look like a leader, above politics, fighting for Florida.

But his favorables, according to Quinnipiac's June 9th survey, haven't changed dramatically from the more difficult days of early 2010 and late 2009. His current job approval, at 57%, is lower than it was in October 2009 when Rubio's insurgency was underway. His favorables today are lower than the October poll as well, currently at 52%.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has struggled to pivot out of primary mode and into a general. The shift from running as "the true conservative" to a general election candidate will not be an easy one, and it becomes more and more critical with each tough poll that the Rubio campaign make that transition and begin to build his case to an audience beyond Tea Parties and local GOP groups.

There are a number of things going in Crist's favor - but don't count Rubio out. Five months is an eternity in politics. Looking at the recent polls and exit polling data going back to 1994, there are a variety of factors that will keep this race interesting through November.

1)Florida's unemployment rate is the fifth highest in the nation at 11.7%. There's an anecdote my colleagues and I have been using recently to describe the current political environment. Imagine a run-down house on that is on fire. Sure, the windows need repair, the house could use a coat of paint, the lawn needs to be cut. But until you put out the fire, the rest of that is irrelevant. The fire in politics today is the unemployment rate; until jobs come back to Florida, everything else is a distraction. When you can't drive down a suburban street without seeing foreclosure signs, voters have bigger issues they are voting on than whether or not former party chair Jim Greer had an illegal consulting arrangement with the Florida GOP. The temptation will be high for candidates to get into discussions about party credit card statements and backroom deals but things in Florida are very serious, and voters will respond to the candidates that take the economic crisis seriously.

2) Around one out of four voters in 2010 in Florida is likely to be independent. In the 2006 election, 24% of voters in the Governor's race were independent - a number that jumped to 29% in the Presidential race in 2008, in congruence with the nationwide trend of a small bump in independents. Capturing these voters is key. Currently, Crist is winning 51% of independent voters according to the June 9 Quinnipiac poll. This is not particularly surprising - both Meek and Rubio have been fighting for their partisan supporters - but if Crist continues to sustain a majority of the independent vote, he will be incredibly formidable heading into November.

3) As a result, Rubio must improve his brand with independents. Republicans know Marco Rubio. They love Marco Rubio. Only a quarter haven't formed an opinion about him, and only 11% don't like him. When it comes to locking down his side, he's good. His bigger problem comes from independents, where his fav/unfav is roughly even at 31-30. He absolutely needs to have favorables that are over 50% among independents in order to be competitive with Crist.

4) Kendrick Meek still doesn't have a statewide brand, and if he develops one, he will slightly erode Crist's share of the vote. Crist currently pulls in a whopping 37% of Democratic voters. I believe this has a lot to do with the fact that 69% of voters, including 59% of Democrats, say they haven't heard enough about Meek to form an opinion. As the election proceeds and all candidates hit the airwaves one can expect Crist's advantage to erode. These days, a candidate can build a brand almost overnight - consider that Rick Scott came out of nowhere and now boasts 53% of Florida voters who have an opinion about him. Meek may not be armed with the same kind of war chest, but by election day it is highly unlikely that Meek will still be an unknown to 7 out of 10 voters.

5) Painting Crist as an opportunist is not enough - people think everyone does what's popular. The conventional wisdom is that if Rubio pulls down Crist's favorables and brands Crist as a political opportunist, he can gain ground. The Quinnipiac poll showed that almost half of Florida voters (48%) think Crist makes decisions based on "what's popular" - a charge they also believe about Marco Rubio (42%). When the question is asked generally about "most public officials", 74% say they usually do what is popular. Fighting the battle over whether or not Crist is "principled" isn't fighting a battle on which Rubio has some major advantage in the general electorate. Furthermore, it's not as if Florida voters didn't associate Crist's defection from the GOP with ulterior motives - 60% said he left the Republican party because he couldn't win the primary, including 57% of independents. Voters aren't naïve on this point. If Rubio spends five months beating up on Crist as an opportunist and neglecting to build his own favorables among independents, it's not likely to be as productive as he'd like.

Most folks I talk to say that in order for Rubio to have a fighting chance against Crist, he needs to bring down Crist's favorables. Of course, that strategy might yield a slight bump in standing, but I don't believe it is nearly enough to win. Voters already assume politicians do what they need to do to get elected. They already assume Crist has made politically motivated moves in this race. And they vote for him anyways. The problem isn't Crist's favorables, the problem is Rubio's neutral brand image among independents. And the way for Rubio, Crist, or Meek (or any candidate in any race, for that matter) to build that brand is to become the leader on the issue of the economy and jobs.

Crist may be getting a break in the press with his handling of the oil spill. But the ultimate impact of the oil spill is more than environmental, it is economic. If tourism dollars start leaving the state and the economic situation grows more dire, the primacy of the economy in this and all races will become even greater. In January 2007 when Crist was sworn into office, Florida's unemployment rate was 3.5%. Besides March 2007, every month that Charlie Crist has been Governor, Florida's unemployment rate has gotten worse. Even the national unemployment rate doesn't have a trend as dramatically consistent as that, and even though the national rate has levelled off, Florida's keeps getting worse.

If Rubio wants to take Crist head on, he should - but with economic policy contrasts that demonstrate both how Crist failed to ameliorate the jobs situation and with how Rubio would propose to fix the problem. Rubio rose to fame as the "ideas" man in Tallahassee, and it is that same focus on "ideas" that can be his ticket to Washington in November.