Florida's campaigns will go negative early, experts warn

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 30, 2010 

Eager for a respite from the political attacks of the primary season? Anxious for a nuanced debate over Florida's jobless rate, the housing market, the cost of health care?

Turn off the television. But for a brief post-primary lull, the airwaves are expected to be flooded until Nov. 2 with attacks and counterattacks.

"It's going to be a long slog for Florida viewers," said Evan Tracey, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a division of Kantar Media. "You're seeing it nationwide. Voters are angry, so politicians aren't wasting time trying to entertain or sound upbeat. They're going at one another, trying to assign blame, disqualify the opposition and take them out."

The negativity has its critics, chiefly among voters: "I think it's been one of the most horrible elections I've seen in my life," Sid Grossman, an 83-year-old Democratic activist in Margate, said of the Florida gubernatorial and Senate primaries. "It's been dirty. It's hard for voters to make a choice."

Politicians have sought higher ground: Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio's first general election ad is a warm spot about his parents, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink poked fun at her battling Republican rivals during the primary, saying in an ad she'd only "fight" for Floridians.

But analysts suggest it may only be a matter of time. And most expect the more contentious battle to be the governor's race where Republican winner Rick Scott won a primary so divisive that his vanquished opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, has refused to endorse him.

In contrast, Democrats Saturday were to hold "unity rallies" in Tampa and Orlando to kick off their campaigns.

"I suspect that once Scott throws a mudball, then you'll see a huge counter blast from Sink saying he started it, so the food fight is on," said Brad Coker, Florida director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.

Tracey, who tracks political ads, found that spending has increased over the 2006 midterm elections and that more than half of the ads developed by candidates for state and federal office this year were negative, a "remarkable" figure, he said, given that most negative ads occur later in the season.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said she's seen a spike in candidates setting out negative from the start. But she noted that some negative ads and character attacks provide voters with insight into the candidates.

"In Florida's Senate race, issue-wise I'm not sure it makes much sense to talk beyond jobs and the economy because that's what voters care about," she said. "These character issues can be important to voters -- it's how they get to know somebody who, odds are, they won't meet."

That's the case in Florida, where meet-and-greet town halls and coffee klatches aren't practical. For reaching the state's 4 million voters, you need campaign staff, consultants, volunteers and lots of television time.

Money may be an obstacle in the Senate race for Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent.

Coker noted that both Meek and Rubio are likely to go after Crist -- who is hoping to siphon voters from them.

"They'll engage but not put up ads against each other," Coker said. "It's going to be who can take more meat off Charlie's bones. That's going to be the race and we don't know if Crist has the money to fight on two fronts."

Even as Rubio struck a positive note in his first ad, his campaign released a web video mocking Crist for answering, "Who cares?" to queries about whether he'd caucus with Democrats or Republicans. And along with Meek's campaign, Rubio's campaign hammered Crist for saying he would have voted for the federal health care bill -- then later saying he opposed it.

"Breaking," read an e-mail from Meek's campaign -- noting that Crist had once urged Meek to vote against the bill. "Governor Crist Diagnosed with Political Amnesia."

Crist looked to shake off the suggestions that he was switching stances: "Being an independent, I have the freedom to be an honest broker for the people of Florida without regard for political party."

Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.

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