Florida Governor Charlie Crist skulked away from the Republican Party like a rebellious teenager. Not unlike a rebellious teenager, Crist’s biggest problems could be finances, self-identity and attitude.
“It seems that Charlie is dying the death of a thousand cuts,” said Jamie Miller, a Republican political consultant in Florida. "I don’t know that going independent is anything but another self inflicted cut.”
When Arlen Specter switched parties, the result was palpable: outrage from the right, a media barrage and angry donors demanding their money back. But Specter’s switch provided only a modest boost for his Republican challenger, Pat Toomey, which didn’t even come until several months later.
There could be similar circumstances in Florida. As they were with Specter, the national Republican party is clearly outraged at Crist, with Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), saying that Republicans will fully support Rubio after Crist’s official announcement on Thursday.
As with Specter, the media barrage is only growing, and the story hasn’t yet broke on whether donors want their money back. Charlie Crist has an impressive war chest already, with about $10 million in the bank. So he might be able to weather the storm, or he might not, if donations completely dry up.
The biggest question, then, is whether Crist’s switch will keep Rubio’s explosive momentum going and show tangible returns when the ballots are counted. The governor is polling ten to twenty points behind Rubio in a primary election, but a general election contest is a whole different can of worms. One poll shows that a hypothetical three-way contest between Rubio, Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek would put Crist ahead. Another poll of the same scenario puts Rubio ahead.
Perhaps the biggest factor is the direction and level of intensity of the national interest that is focused on the race.
“The national interest has been up until now focused on… this national narrative – promoted by the left – of intra-party fighting by the Republicans,” said Jamie Sayfie, author of the influential Sayfie report on Florida politics. The national narrative is likely to continue, “especially when you factor in the attitudes of the mainstream media about the tea party, and the perception that the tea party movement has fueled Rubio’s campaign.”
Now that Crist has switched, the national narrative could either prove beneficial or detrimental to Rubio. On one hand, the narrative works in Rubio’s favor, because he has proven to be an expert at exploiting the political whirlwind associated with a hotly contested race. On the other hand, Crist’s announcement has transformed the race from a primary election contest into a general election contest. Rubio only needed to win over Republican voters in the primary, but will now need to focus on independents and moderate Democrats in the general. Independents and moderate Democrats make up an enormous part of the Florida electorate.
“A lot of what drove Marco’s fundraising was an anti-Crist appeal,” said Sayfie. “I think a lot of people wanted to make a statement about who they wanted to be the Republican nominee. I wonder with Crist no longer competing for the Republican nomination, to what extent that level of enthusiasm will be there.”
Miller pointed out that Florida is a very friendly state to independent candidates, even though none of them have won.
“I’d go back to the historical part of it, where I think Ross Perot received 19% of the vote – 19% of the vote, in the  general election. And Perot had no connection to the Republican party, and no connection to Florida. He was the no-connection person, and received all those votes,” said Miller. That means Crist is already very friendly with the 20%-or-so of Florida voters who don’t identify with any party.
But Miller could only think of one person in the entirety of the Sunshine state that was currently elected without the label of “Democrat” or “Republican.”
“My recollection is that any person who has won [without being under the Democrat or Republican veil] was a Wakulla county commissioner,” said Miller. “Maybe that Wakulla county commissioner is leading the trend.”
The player in this game with the least to gain is clearly Meek. In addition to the polls showing that Meek is not likely to enjoy the benefit of a split ticket, he’s unlikely to enjoy the benefit of any more media attention, either. A three-way race is a spectacle in American politics, and the race will continue to garner widespread attention through November. But the processing that three-way race isn’t easy, because neither the media nor the voters are used to it.
“Whoever is perceived as being the odd man out is going to get less media attention and less voter attention,” said Sayfie. Right now, Meek is the odd man out.
Christian Waugh, a Republican attorney and activist in Florida, thinks that in the short-term, Crist will benefit from switching parties, but in the end, the Governor is “toast.”
“What I'd expect is a small bump for Crist at first due to his veto of the merit pay bill from the Florida legislature and his decision to go independent, which will attract some independents and moderates who may have been lukewarm before,” said Waugh. “Later on, Crist's descent will continue as he is forced to attack Rubio, who will become the front-runner, and Republicans abandon his campaign.”
Jordan Raynor, a blogger at Techrepublican, wasn’t nearly so keen on throwing in the towel for Crist.
“Charlie Crist is still alive in this race, and anyone who counts Crist out is a fool. Charlie Crist is a brilliant campaigner and will work harder than he's ever worked before to save his political life.”