Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be the biggest favorite in a Florida governor’s race in more than a decade.
That’s according to interviews with pollsters, elected officials and political observers on the ground, who say that with less than a month until Election Day, DeSantis has numerous paths to victory.
His opponent, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, has precious few.
“I can come up with probably 20 reasons why DeSantis wins,” said Brad Coker, CEO and managing director of the Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy firm — which had DeSantis ahead by 11 points in a late September poll.
For Crist, the only realistic victory scenario Coker could envision involved a major political blunder by DeSantis.
“Beyond that,” Coker said, “I’m really having to stretch.”
No matter what happens on the evening of Nov. 8 — a DeSantis victory or a Crist upset — no single narrative will explain the outcome. But here are three possible winning scenarios for each candidate.
Ron DeSantis wins
Scenario 1: DeSantis’ prolific fundraising leads to a big victory.
The race may well come down to a simple fact: DeSantis has about $100 million more in campaign cash. The Republican incumbent has $102 million; Crist has a little less than $3 million.
For Floridians watching weekend sports, it’s been impossible to avoid finely produced TV spots touting DeSantis. One features DeSantis as “Top Gov,” a fighter unafraid to take on enemies like the news media. Another shows First Lady Casey DeSantis describe the way her husband supported her through her recent cancer battle.
With the Crist campaign badly lacking in funding, DeSantis’ messaging advantage is only going to grow in these crucial closing days.
“If Charlie Crist wins in November, it will be despite Democratic donors, who chose to sit it out in Florida,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of the progressive political group Florida Rising.
One stark comparison: During Crist’s 2014 campaign for governor, he had raised nearly $10 million more by this point in the race than he has for this cycle. That time, he won the Democratic nomination but narrowly lost to Republican Rick Scott.
Scenario 2: DeSantis continues to build on Donald Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters.
When Crist ran for governor in 2014, he won heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County by 19 points. In 2020, Joe Biden won the county by about 7 points over Donald Trump — an extremely worrying decline for Florida Democrats.
The Hispanic vote is, of course, anything but monolithic. The Crist and DeSantis campaigns will have to work to understand the needs of numerous diverse communities to win the overall Spanish-speaking vote. That includes the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida, Venezuelan Americans in South Florida and Cuban Americans in the Miami area, to name a few.
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While each group has varying priorities, Democrats may not be able to count on an endorsement from a broad majority of Hispanic voters. Republican leaders have made inroads in recent years in part by aggressively condemning the far-left authoritarian governments in Latin America and by equating those leaders with American Democrats.
Miami-Dade alone could prove to be a bellwether. Crist needs to run up the numbers there, experts say. He can’t afford to tread water.
“If they are not improving on Biden’s margins with the Hispanic bloc, there’s zero chance of winning the election,” said Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data consultant. “It’s way too critical.”
Scenario 3: It’s a great time to be a Florida Republican.
When DeSantis first ran for governor in 2018, he had to navigate a brutal cycle for Republicans. Not only were then-President Trump’s lagging approval numbers dragging down Republicans across the country, but Florida Democrats boasted a quarter-million more registered voters.
In 2022, those dynamics are essentially reversed. The president is Biden, and polling numbers show the Democrat is about as unpopular as Trump was at this point in the cycle. The Biden effect — a combination of inflation woes and general worry about the direction of the country — is almost certain to hurt Democrats in November, pollsters say.
Under DeSantis, Florida Republicans also have transformed the state politically, seizing a voter registration edge for the first time, with more 292,000 more Republicans than Democrats.
Even in a state with two decades of Republican rule, this year’s election has particularly strong structural advantages for the GOP.
“Let’s say Republicans max out on their base, Democrats max out on their base and independents go 50-50,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster and strategist. “DeSantis still wins by a couple hundred thousand votes.”
Charlie Crist wins
Scenario 1: DeSantis charged too far to the right.
For Crist to win, Democrats have to hope that DeSantis has alienated significant voting blocs with his attention-grabbing policy moves.
For example, might swaths of Florida’s Venezuelan community object to DeSantis’ move to ship Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Massachusetts? Might some voters grow tired of DeSantis’ strong-arm style of governance — his fight with Disney, his controversial appointments? Might some middle-class voters blame DeSantis for not using his bully pulpit to address skyrocketing rents?
One potential victory scenario for Crist involves voters answering “yes” to all of the above questions.
The bad news for Crist: There is little indication any of that is happening. Polling averages from the forecasting site FiveThirtyEight show DeSantis ahead by nearly 10 points.
“I don’t think there’s any scenario where Charlie Crist could win this race,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters, the head of the Republican Party of Florida.
“We’re running like we’re running from behind,” said Pinellas County Democratic chairperson Lucinda Johnston. “Because we are.”
Scenario 2: Abortion dominates the election.
Amandi, the Democratic pollster, said DeSantis could lose if the following adage proves true: “Hell hath no fury like a Florida woman’s scorn.”
In the Trump era of American politics, suburban women have proven a vital constituency for Democrats. When the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year, the energy coming from that bloc lent hope to those dreaming of a blue wave.
Crist is counting on a tsunami of votes from those who fear the abortion restrictions that could be enacted under a second DeSantis term. (The Republican governor signed a bill banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy earlier this year. He’s declined to specify what restrictions he’d support in the next legislative session.)
Isbell said it’s possible DeSantis’ conservative crusades to restrict abortion and antagonize LGBTQ students — for example — have turned off some suburban voters.
“He’s willing to sacrifice a certain number of votes to the center so he can endear himself to the right,” Isbell said, adding that such a strategy would set DeSantis up for a 2024 presidential primary.
Republicans, though, have tried to cut away at Democrats’ recent gains with suburban women, in part through the issue of education. Groups like Moms for Liberty have spent the last few years championing conservative causes such as curriculum restrictions and fights against coronavirus precautions. The November vote tallies could provide hints as to how potent those efforts have been.
Scenario 3: DeSantis suffers a political ‘black swan’ event.
In 2018, the Florida governor’s race had its share of intrigue up until Election Day. The Democratic nominee, Andrew Gillum, was dogged by an FBI investigation that resulted in his indictment years later. (Gillum’s attorney has denied the allegations.)
The DeSantis-Crist race hasn’t been as dramatic. But one potential path to victory for Crist involves, to put it plainly, something bonkers happening.
It’s unclear what that might be. But political “black swan” events have shaken up campaigns before. Hillary Clinton campaigned under the shadow of an FBI investigation in 2016. And in 2000, a candidate for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats died in a plane crash just weeks before the election. He won anyway.
Amandi floated the possibility that Trump could disrupt this year’s race. Could a public falling out between DeSantis and Trump lead disillusioned Republicans to stay home?
“You asked me to explain three reasons why Charlie pulled off the upset,” Amandi said. “You didn’t ask me how plausible they were.”