The courage — and danger — of Charlie Crist’s endorsement of Barack Obama

By on August 26, 2012

Judging by the reaction from Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Charlie Crist’s endorsement of Barack Obama on the eve of the GOP Convention in Tampa only further exacerbates the messy divorce between Crist and his former party.

“While the people of Florida, and thousands of visitors who’ve traveled here, are facing an emergency, Charlie Crist has demonstrated, yet again, that his political ambition will always come first,” said Curry, in a hastily assembled press release sent late Saturday night.

And therein lies the courage — and danger — of Crist’s bold stroke.

The courage in Crist’s decision comes from his charting a path here no one has previously traveled. There isn’t precedent for a state’s most popular politician losing an election, leaving their party and then running again for public office.

Of course, there are many examples of a state’s most political politician surprisingly losing an election, only to return later in stronger form. In 1980, Bill Clinton became the youngest ex-governor in history after he lost to Republican Frank White.  Of course, Clinton roared back into office in 1982.

In other words, even the ‘Big Dog’ can lose an election.  Crist losing in 2010 doesn’t have to be the end of the road for him. But, unlike Clinton, Crist would be doing it after switching parties. Again, there really isn’t a precedent for that.

Crist is still finding his way, even if he hasn’t lost his voice.

Some of us who support him — and know that he is the only viable candidate capable of ending Rick Scott’s tyrannical reign — thought he should hold off in endorsing President Obama. That’s because the more Crist resembles  just another partisan figure, the less unique his brand becomes.

The most recent polling bears this out. According to an August survey from Public Policy Polling, Crist’s favorability numbers have tightened the more likely it appears he will run for Governor in 2014.

When Public Policy Polling polled a hypothetical race between Crist vs. Scott eight months ago, Crist wholloped Scott by 23 points (55-32), thanks to Crist’s 25% of Republicans and a 20-point lead with independents (52-32).

But now Scott has pulled to within three points of Crist in a hypothetical match-up (44-41).  Scott actually leads 43-40 with independents.

Part of Crist’s decline against Scott is his own personal numbers.  His 41-41 favorability split overall is down from 48-33 last November.  That includes declines across the board, but particularly with the independents who now favor Scott.  He has slipped 17 points on the margin with them, and they now actually dislike him, 36-44.

I can’t help but think this decline is pegged to Crist’s rapid march to the left, which includes him endorsing Democrat Bill Nelson over Connie Mack for the U.S. Senate,  penning an op-ed for the Washington Post criticizing Scott’s wrong-headed, but very popular voter purge and supporting a handful of Democratic candidates, from congressional aspirant Al Lawson to Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

The long and short of it is, becoming a Democrat has been dangerous for Charlie Crist’s political health.

Even though Democrats are the most enthusiastic about Crist becoming a Democrat — 56% of them think he should, versus 31% of Republicans and 32% of independents — and though they like Crist (50-31 favorability) a lot more than they do Scott, Scott still slightly outperforms his approval numbers across the aisle when pitted against Crist.  He gets 16% of their vote, versus 13% approval.  He was only getting 7% of Democrats against Nan Rich.

So for those, such as the RPOF’s Curry, who view Crist’s endorsement of Obama as having been a foregone conclusion, they should know that in doing so, Crist is doing the one thing his opponents say he has never done before: He’s putting his own neck on the line.

That could be electorally dangerous for Charlie Crist. But right now, it’s just politically courageous.

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