Florida governor race: More than Charlie Crist likability vs. Rick Scott money

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As for retail politics, even ardent detractors say Charlie Crist is one of the best there is.

Crist has it all — charisma, charm and “Clintonesque” magnetism. The former governor loves the camera, and the camera loves him right back. He can work a room — any room — as if he owns the place.

Contrast that with Gov. Rick Scott. He appears uncomfortable both in person and on camera, says Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida. Attempts by handlers to make Scott more appealing, such as showing up tieless with sleeves rolled up, have met with limited success.

His staff has resorted to pictures of Scott and his wife Ann with their grandchildren over the governor’s Twitter feed.

This may spell trouble for Scott in November, since history proves that more likable candidates have a better chance of winning elections.

But then again, it might not.

Although Crist has the likability factor, the question remains — is it enough to make up for $100 million that Scott is expected to spend on his re-election campaign.

“As much as we like to think of ourselves as very rational people who look at all the evidence, a lot of times what we end up doing is making very emotional reactions to people,” Lee Budesheim says.

Budesheim is professor of psychology at Creighton University in Nebraska, who has researched likeability and its role in elections.

Elections are not clear popularity contests, but “a big part of it can be who do you think will serve your interests, and that comes across through a person’s warmth and through a person’s perceived intelligence,” Budesheim tells the News Service.

Republicans have ganged up on Crist ever since the former Republican left the party in 2010 for an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate as an independent. Now he is running again for governor as a Democrat.

The 2014 Florida race, if Crist wins the nomination, will be like any other high-profile election, where boatloads of money will go to improve a candidate’s image. Scott will be spending even more to tear down Crist.

Scott’s approach might be working, as Crist’s shine is beginning to fade, at least among Republicans, Kam writes.

“The battleground of likeability will be a lot more level than people thought it would be in a few months,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant not affiliated with Scott’s campaign.

“The likeability that Charlie had on paper is a declining asset.”

But Crist is not just facing opposition from Scott and Republicans; Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich and her supporters have also joined the fray against Crist.

“The question is trust. Do you trust someone who’s got a record, a 12-year record, representing those core Democratic values or do you trust someone who says now, ‘I’ve changed?’ I think people have to prove themselves,” said Rich — a lifelong Democrat—in a recent Tallahassee appearance with Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women.

However, negative campaigning may not have the intended message with voters, says political science professor Kevin Wagner of Florida Atlantic University.

“Despite the vast amounts of money people will spend,” Wagner tells Kam, “it’s hard to move the numbers because people are pretty well informed on these two guys. There’s not a whole lot new to learn.”

Like most incumbents, the election will probably be more of a referendum on Scott than it is about Crist’s likability. Scott’s popularity has never topped 50 percent since he took office in 2010.

Scott faces a different problem since he rode into office in 2010 on a Tea Party wave, barely squeaking by with 1 percent advantage against former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who (by many accounts) ran a poor campaign.

The governor’s strategy is selling voters on his record of lower unemployment, more jobs and an economic recovery statewide.

“While likeability is important,” Wilson says, “the bottom line is going to be is this guy going to be better for my family on the economic front.”

On both fronts, the money will help Scott, Wilson adds.

Crist aide Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign, believes his candidate has sufficient resources to hold his own against Scott.

“There’s this perception that there’s going to be unlimited money,” says Schale. “It’s not like it’s going to be only a Rick Scott negative campaign against Charlie Crist and Charlie Crist is just going to have his name on the ballot.”

“It’s going to be a conversation. It’s not going to be like Pepsi and Tab, or Ford and the Malaysian Proton.”

Republicans disagree, saying it is better to have money than likability.  

“If I’ve got $100 million and you’ve got $50 million, I can spend $50 million with my foot on your face, and I can spend $50 million on pictures of me and my grandchildren,” says GOP consultant J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich.

“If you’ve got $50 million,” he adds, “you’re probably going to have to go further with your foot on my face than with pictures of the grandchildren you don’t have.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.