The Sunshine State, now with 29 big electoral votes (up from 25 when it decided Bush v. Gore in 2000), may in two years tip the election again. But in the meantime, this year’s gubernatorial race is providing clues about what will push Floridians’ buttons in 2016.
Party lines will be important in the race between incumbent Republican governor Rick Scott and former-Republican-governor-turned-Democratic-challenger Charlie Crist. Each candidate is winning substantial support from his respective party. Nevertheless, in the latest poll of likely voters, a full 9 percent of them remain undecided.
Overall, polls give Scott a slight edge, for two reasons: Florida’s economy is flourishing, and the state GOP is backing him with a strong ground game. Crist, meanwhile, must persuade Florida’s savvy Dems that he is the Democrat he says he is, not the Republican they knew him to be for so many years.
Here are the five key factors in this year’s contest:
1) The booming economy and tax relief may trump all else.
Floridians are back at work. In less than four years’ time, the Florida economy has turned around, with more than 640,000 private-sector jobs added and unemployment down by nearly 5 percent. The state has also benefited from an about-face in the housing market. Once Ground Zero for residential foreclosures, Florida now sees its residential property values growing at double the national average. Florida’s tourist business served 95 million visitors in 2013. This steady stream of good news, combined with high consumer confidence, might well hand Rick Scott a second term.
It wasn’t that Scott just got lucky. He can point to policies that helped to spur this recovery. He promoted a friendlier regulatory climate that is attracting companies to relocate to the Sunshine State. Scott cut taxes some 40 separate times; while Crist was in office, he raised them by $2.2 billion. The governor’s $400 million vehicle-fee tax cut just came into effect, saving drivers some $25 each on the cars they drive to the polls on Election Day. In a bid to attract blue-collar jobs, Florida has also eliminated taxes on manufacturing equipment and machines.
2) Scott has shown a commitment to full-time governance.
Most Floridians realize that Scott, since the day he became governor, has stayed focused on governing. Committed liberals might disagree with his policies, but no one takes issue with Scott’s dogged promotion of Florida as a place to do business.
In contrast, Crist’s time in office saw him constantly looking outside the state. First, Crist sought to position himself as a potential Republican nominee for vice president, which occupied much of his second year as governor. After that didn’t pan out, Crist ran for the United States Senate. When it was clear he could not win as a Republican, Crist changed parties and finished his run as an independent. This occupied nearly the last two years of Crist’s term as governor. During these two years, Florida’s economy ran on the rocks and nearly sank. Unemployment skyrocketed, the real estate market plummeted and confidence was shaken — while Crist did little but seek higher office for himself.
3) The minority turnout looms large.
Florida’s vibrant and diverse Latino community will unquestionably be of great significance. Both Scott’s and Crist’s running mates are of Hispanic descent, but that is where the resemblance ends.
Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, recently sworn in, may never have previously won a statewide election, but he was majority leader in the Florida House of Representatives for eight years, representing Miami-Dade, and before that he served as a county official. Crist’s running mate is Miami-Dade Democratic-party chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, who has never held elected office — once losing to popular South Florida GOP representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Lopez-Cantera’s experience and popularity should be a plus for Scott, capturing Hispanic votes not only in Miami-Dade County, where he is hugely popular, but in Broward and Palm Beach Counties and across the I-4 Corridor of Central Florida. The unproven Taddeo-Goldstein may well prove a liability to Crist.
Turnout will determine African-American clout. In 2008, with the historic chance to elect Barack Obama, 76 percent of blacks in Florida turned out to vote. Two years later, when Scott won the governorship, only 43 percent did. A Crist victory hinges on a large turnout of black Democrats, which seems unlikely without Obama leading the ticket.
What is more, the Republican Crist was tough on crime, actually embracing his nickname, “Chain-Gang Charlie.” Some black and Hispanic voters may remember the image of prisoners in shackles and decide to stay home this year. Indeed, given the tepid interest of voters in the primary, overall turnout is likely to be less than 50 percent across ethnic groups.
4) Flip-flopping isn’t pretty.
As part of changing parties, Crist made a 180 on just about every contested issue in America. Can he convince voters that he is anything but a cynic, whose views are up for political sale? Can he fire up Democrats to support him as the champion of values and beliefs that he spent so many years opposing? Quite possibly not, if polls are correct, which indicate that his flip-flops have weakened voters’ opinion of Crist as a leader. When asked which candidate can “provide strong leadership,” voters choose Scott over Crist by a margin of 12 percent.
Crist’s about-face on the Cuban embargo — he was for it before he was against it — could ignite a strong turnout in Miami-Dade against him. Crist’s belated embrace of gun control won’t play well in northern Florida. As we learned from Mitt Romney’s evolving views on social issues, switching sides on hot-button topics angers one’s former allies, without necessarily winning over the people with whom you now say you agree.
5) Obama’s low approval ratings and historical trends for off-year elections suggest that Democratic voter turnout will be low.
In the Democratic-party primary, Crist foolishly ignored his challenger, Nan Rich, irritating the rank-and-file liberal Florida Democrats who rallied behind her. That primary sparked little interest statewide, with only 17 percent showing up in bellwether Broward County. As a former Reagan Republican, Crist will struggle to motivate progressives, who are thick on the ground in places such as Broward. If Scott can get even a third of the vote in venues like that, he will win it all.
Perhaps to prove his liberal bona fides — and unlike other Democrats on the ballot this fall — not only has Crist fully embraced President Obama and his policies, he is actually running to the left of the President. The President’s approval rating in Florida remains at a dismal 43 percent (with his disapproval 10 percent higher). Add to that the historical trend that the party that holds the White House fares worse in off-year elections, and Scott looks likely to lead.
With negatives for both candidates running high, the Libertarian spoiler Adrian Wyllie will attract the “none of the above” crowd. Still, every poll suggests that Wyllie’s vote total will affect Crist and Scott equally.
Democrats might hold a slight registration majority in Florida, but on the issues it remains a center-right state. Barring an unexpectedly high turnout by Democrats, I think that we are looking at four more years for Governor Scott.
— Ed J. Pozzuoli is the president of Florida-based law firm Tripp Scott. He was the co-chairman of Jeb Bush for Governor (Broward). He also served as an integral member of the Bush/Cheney legal team in the 2000 presidential recount litigation. He is an active member of the Republican party and served as the chairman of the Republican party in Broward County.