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Wednesday
Dec162009

How we got to 43:43: Crist's inevitable return to Earth.

To me, the real story surrounding the Crist/Rubio Rasmussen poll has very little to do with Marco Rubio's rise and has everything to do with the one fundamental flaw in Crist's political career:  he's never had a  base.

Let me start by giving Rubio the credit he is due.  Politics is all about timing and opportunity.  Rubio is a politico of enormous talent, but it is hard to imagine if this was 2006 or 2008, that he would have had a similar level of success.  He is what his party is looking for now: energetic, bright and most importantly, ideologically pure.  Quite simply, he's become the leader the conservative movement was looking for.  But lets not forget that six months ago, people were writing him off for dead.  Moreover, the same poll that showed him tied shows him with very little name ID.  In other words, GOP voters are willing to give him a shot today, simply because he is not Charlie Crist.

Which is why this is really a story about the Governor.

Crist has lived a charmed political career.  He represented what was then a rock-ribbed GOP county in the State Senate (Pinellas) and earned great kudos--and a decent amount of statewide name ID, for taking on Senator Graham, even though he was trounced.  His first statewide win was against George Sheldon, legitimately one of the good guys, but who was hardly a household name, then two years later, with substantially more name ID, he beat Buddy Dyer for Attorney General in a race that had a lot more to do with the bottom falling out of the Bill McBride campaign than it did with Crist.  If McBride had gotten to 46 or 47%, Dyer may well have beaten Crist. 

Then in 2006, Crist took on a Democratic Party that was absolutely demoralized after four very bad cycles, beating Jim Davis in a race where he was largely running by himself.  Some reports show Crist outspent Davis by 4 or 5:1.  Yet in someways, that race foretold the future:  48% of Florida voters chose someone else, despite Crist's always high personal favorables.

Early in his term, Crist was viewed as untouchable.  But even when his approval ratings were at their most meteoric, his numbers were soft.  His "very favorables" never moved much beyond 10% of the electorate (compared to Jeb, who had almost all of his favorables in the very fav category). In other words, Florida voters knew they liked the guy, but they weren't sure they loved him, and when times were good, he never convinced the GOP (or anyone for that matter) to really embrace him.   So when the economy tanked, so did Crist.  Unlike Jeb, who easily survived the economic woes of 2001 and 2002, Crist had no well to go back to. 

Surely much of this can be traced to Crist's calculating style of governing.  He's done a masterful job over the years of positioning himself right where Florida voters are---more of a popularist than a populist.  But the tradewinds of this crazy state change just like the weather in the summer.  Florida looks nothing like the state of Crist's political birth, and the mood of the electorate today is very different than at anytime in his political career. 

Is Crist done? No.  In the last twenty-five or so years of FL Sen/Gov races, only Connie Mack, Bob Martinez and Mel Martinez have won on their first statewide try.  In a state where solid TV pushes 2 million a week, running statewide is a great predictor of winning statewide.  Further, Florida voters don't know Rubio yet, and rest assured, he will have to survive the media meat grinder.  Plus Crist is going to have plenty of money to communicate, and voters may begin to worry that Rubio can't win a general. The idea that we can say today that Crist can't win is downright silly.

But without a doubt, this is the biggest challenge of his political life and to overcome it, he will need to develop the one thing that has eluded him his whole career, a base.

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Reader Comments (10)

Right on target, Steve.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTravis Peterson

Well thought out and, I believe, correct.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon

It is spot-on that these 'below the surface vulnerabilities' have been there for some time. I also think this primary fight was the only way to reveal them. His victories come from shorter-term popularity contests than they do a seasoned political brand.

Glad to see you're doing this.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

You also need to give credit to the Ron Paul/ Grover Norquist crowed that has gotten behind Rubio. They are gaining in strength as in fighting at the Republican Party destroys the classical Republican base. Until this year this demographic i.e. Libertarian has been largely absent in Florida. With Peter Schiff running for Senate in Connecticut, Rubio may be able to benefit from his publicity and overcome his lack of name recognition and Scott Rothstein's money. (oops sorry, I meant Charlie Crist's money)

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

The most common refrain from Florida voters disappointed with Crist: "Charlie said my property taxes would 'drop like a rock'...and I'm still waiting." When you hang your hat on a big promise, you'd better deliver.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFranco

Hell of a write up. Never really saw the history of it like that. Rock solid. Should have sold this to National Journal. They'll let you send it write ups like this.

Bravo!

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom Wharton

Steve,

Good analysis. However, it is hard to read the white text on the black background. How about the other way around?

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBill Hollimon

It's going to be interesting to see how Rubio's campaign 1) handles its first real controversy and more importantly, 2) if they could turn all their momentum into something useful i.e., cash or volunteers. If I was a betting man, I'd bet he's just about peaked.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulio Diaz

In "pushes 2 million a week," I guess that is dollars, right?

Rubio in a small group has this way of telling people to really listen close to what he's going to say, and then he tells a whopper. such as that no country has ever done a good job with a single-payer health plan. Sooner or later people will catch on to him. I've seen him at my sailing club in Key Largo (it's on my blog) and he's to be at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club in Miami Beach. He's peaking and Crist is well past his purported popularity.

Keep up the strong analysis.

December 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLarry Thorson

Great work! Congratulations on your new site, Steve. I've subscribed and I'm sure many of our "peeps" will, too.

Happy Holidays!

December 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

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