By the time the Halloween memo from their pollsters arrived Friday, Charlie Crist's campaign team had already lost a good deal of confidence from a week earlier. Gov. Rick Scott was spending the equivalent of $1,200 a minute every day, every hour on TV ads, and it was moving numbers.
"Scott's (TV ad) advantage has a taken a real toll," warned Crist's data crunchers. "Our margin has declined by about a point a day since Monday. . . .
"Over the past week, we've seen a real drop in support among white independents and over the past two weeks with Hispanics. Last week we led Scott by 9 points with white Indys, this week we trail with them by 8 points. We are now 4 points below our win number with Hispanics and continue to under-perform among white Democrats."
Still, a strong Democratic turnout on "Souls to the Polls" Sunday bode well for the Crist team, who knew the race could tip either way as they settled into their war room Tuesday night at St. Petersburg's Renaissance Vinoy Resort to monitor results.
Campaign manager Omar Khan had built the first sizable field organization of any Democratic gubernatorial campaign, determined to not to let weak turnout in heavily populated South Florida counties lose the election as it had for the past four Democratic candidates for governor. On top of that, the climate change activist group NextGen Climate had opened 21 offices across the state and had an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign.
Early returns showed a comfortable Crist lead. It quickly disappeared. By 10:30, it was clear Scott had won a second term, albeit barely. And once again, Democratic turnout in South Florida lagged way behind the rest of the state.
"I am comfortable with every strategic decision we made," Khan said Wednesday, still sorting through the results for answers but pointing at the massive, final bout of TV spending by Scott as pivotal.
John Morgan, the personal injury lawyer backing both Crist and the medical marijuana initiative, said he knew Crist would lose by that final weekend.
"Charlie had been up the last week by 3. On Thursday he was down by 1. And Rick had poured $12 million of his own money in. We knew then, I knew then, it was over," Morgan said. "It is very hard to run into a tsunami and go anywhere."
Even after $100 million in TV ads had already saturated much of Florida, it seems a final blitz of spending can make a difference. Scott's late decision to put nearly $13 million of his own money into the campaign may have ultimately made the difference.
"It's not just about persuading voters who to vote for, it's also people wanting to vote," Khan said. "When you dump that much money, like they did in Miami, that can affect turnout. The question is how does all that negative advertising affect someone who might or might not vote."
Statewide voter turnout was about 50 percent, but in Miami-Dade, just 40 percent of voters showed up. In Broward, another heavily populated Democratic stronghold, 44 percent turned out.
"I'm mystified. We had a huge presence in both places. The numbers are just frustrating to me," said state Democratic chairwoman Allison Tant, who described Tuesday as a "shellacking."
Scott won the governor's race four years ago by about 1 percentage point — 61,000 votes — and he won re-election by about 1 percentage point — about 66,000 votes. Razor-thin races can be all the more painful to the losing campaigns because it leaves greater room for second-guessing.
"They will have four more years to revise history if that will make them feel better," said Tim Saler, Scott's deputy campaign manager. "The facts are that the better candidate won and Gov. Scott's campaign outworked and outperformed Charlie Crist's in every respect. The proof is on the scoreboard."
That scoreboard also showed that half a million more people voted for the initiative to legalize medical marijuana than voted for Scott.
It wasn't just weak Democratic turnout in South Florida that delivered Scott another four years. Voters in Orange County and Osceola County — home to a big, liberal-leaning Puerto Rican voting bloc — weren't motivated to support Crist, either.
And just as important, Scott significantly improved his performance over four years ago in Republican-leaning rural, North Florida counties.
In the Jacksonville area alone, where some Democrats lamented how little time Crist spent there, Scott netted nearly 50,000 more votes than in 2010 against Sink. He beat Sink by about 91,000 votes in that northeast Florida media market and beat Crist by about 140,000.
The long-standing political axiom that whoever wins the Tampa Bay region wins the state held true, and no area saw more spending on TV ads. Scott spent at least $20 million on Tampa Bay TV ads, much of which trashed the outfunded Crist, who spent about $11 million here.
Even though Crist performed better than Sink had in his home county of Pinellas and neighboring Pasco, he did worse than Sink in Hillsborough. Scott won the overall market 48 percent to 46 percent, 2 percentage points worse than he did in 2010.
In Southeast Florida, Crist also did better than Sink. Crist won the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area by 28 percentage points, compared to Sink's 21 points. And Crist carried the Palm Beach market by 12 percentage points, compared to Sink's 10 in 2010.
Scott outspent Crist in Southeast Florida and was able to virtually own the airwaves in the five media markets of North Florida. As a result, Scott's margins improved from Jacksonville to Pensacola, compared to 2010. His biggest improvement from four years ago: Panama City, where the Republican racked up a 44-percentage-point margin, compared to 30 points in 2010.
In the two North Florida media markets Crist won — the college towns of Tallahassee and Gainesville — Scott nevertheless improved his margins by 8 and 7 percentage points, respectively.
The bottom line in Florida elections is that the higher the turnout, the better the prospects for Democrats to win. Florida Democrats have narrowly won the past two presidential races and narrowly lost the past two gubernatorial races.
"It's almost like a cruel game — win and then lose. Win and then lose," former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a top campaign adviser to Crist, noted Wednesday. "This one was the hardest yet. So much was at stake and the final infusion of millions was just too hard to overcome. It's sad to contemplate that money may be all you need to win, but in many respects it seems to be true especially in a state with so many expensive media markets."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.