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  1. Florida Politics

With $50 million in TV ad spending, Rick Scott-Charlie Crist race is one big marketing campaign

Like Gov. Rick Scott, left, most of Charlie Crist's TV ads are negative. [AP photos]
Like Gov. Rick Scott, left, most of Charlie Crist's TV ads are negative. [AP photos]
Published Sep. 23, 2014

Another week. Another $10.4 million thrown in the fire we call television advertising.

Florida's governor's race is now a $50 million-plus commercial spectacle, with more than 71 percent of that spending by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott dropped an additional $8 million for current and future ad buys during the week that ended Friday. That's about a 23 percent increase for the Republican, dwarfing Democrat Charlie Crist's ad-buy increase of 17 percent, or almost $2.5 million.

If TV ads decided the governor's race, then Scott would win in a landslide.

There's more to an election than running commercials, however, just as there's more to winning a war than just using air power. Like a military campaign, a political campaign needs infantry — the "ground game" or "field operations" of paid staff and volunteers who phone voters and reach out to them face to face.

But the latter depends on the former. And so, therefore, does the election.

"The only way field really matters is in a tight race," said Ashley Walker, President Barack Obama's Florida campaign manager in 2012. "A good field operation will give you about 2 points. It might not sound like a lot. But in a close race, it is."

This is a tight race. Once trailing in the polls, Scott has pulled marginally ahead in the same way he won the Governor's Mansion as an unknown in 2010: through massive TV ad buys. His campaigns attest to the power of television — still the best way to reach voters in Florida. It is the size of a small nation, with 10 big media markets and one of the nation's most diverse electorates.

Here's what we can glean from the governor's race through broadcast and cable ad buys, which also include future orders, in the five largest markets:

Tampa Bay

This is Florida's granddaddy media market. It's Florida's largest and most-influential because of the high level of active, yet centrist, voters. It's also Crist's home base.

The St. Petersburg resident's home county of Pinellas, the state's sixth-largest by voter registration, was one of only four counties he won outright in 2010 when he ran as a no-party-affiliation U.S. Senate candidate against Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

To kill Crist's campaign in its crib, Scott has trained more firepower here than anywhere else since March: $10.8 million. In all, $14.7 million has been spent here by allies of the governor and of Crist, who has spent less than $3.9 million in the market. Scott has spent more here against Crist than anywhere else, but Crist doesn't have the finances to match him and figures he'll have to save his money for other markets.

Still, Crist ramped up ad spending in a week by 15 percent. But Scott outdid him, increasing his spending by 29 percent in a week.

Orlando

Orlando is the eastern end of the independent swing area of Florida, the I-4 corridor. If a candidate wins big in the corridor, he wins. But a small win in I-4, as with Mitt Romney in 2012's presidential race when he lost Florida overall, guarantees nothing.

Scott poured it on here in the past week, lifting the size of his buy by 46 percent, or $2.5 million. Crist inflated his ad spending by 20 percent, or about $640,000. In total since March, Scott has run or bought $7.9 million of TV time to Crist's $3.9 million here.

Together, Orlando and Tampa Bay account for 54 percent of all ad spending from the pro-Scott and pro-Crist forces in the race.

West Palm Beach

This market is a mixing zone between liberal Southeast Florida and more-independent and conservative areas to the north. Like Pinellas, Palm Beach County went for Crist in 2010.

But whereas Pinellas is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats (35 percent vs. 36 percent), Palm Beach County has far more Democrats (44 percent) than Republicans (28 percent). Independents outnumber the GOP by about a percentage point. Palm Beach is also huge, the state's third-most populous county by voter registration.

Compared with its neighbors to the south, the West Palm Beach market is far cheaper and has far more reliable voters. It's a great way to make a dollar stretch. So it has seen $7.2 million in ads since March.

Jacksonville

This is the heart of Scott's base: conservative North Florida. And Scott has made sure to shore it up with nearly $3 million in spending, increasing his buy by 35 percent in a week.

Unlike the conservative Panama City market, where Crist hasn't bothered spending ad money yet, Crist is trying to stay more competitive in Jacksonville and has pumped in about $1 million, an increase of 23 percent.

On a percentage basis, Crist has boosted spending higher than Scott in other North Florida media markets (Tallahassee, Gainesville and Pensacola), partly to reach out to the region's large African-American communities. In Jacksonville, for instance, about 28 percent of all registered voters are black. The Crist campaign is hoping to keep African-American turnout high because nine out of 10 black voters are likely to vote Democrat.

Miami-Fort Lauderdale

Florida's most expensive media market broadcasts to the state's two most-populous and most-Democratic counties.

But voters here are among the least reliable. That was a killer for gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink in 2010. Conversely, a large turnout in this market is more than enough to overcome a candidate who wins in I-4, which Obama showed in 2012 when he won Miami-Dade by 208,459 votes.

For weeks, Crist did little as Scott started spending big in Miami-Fort Lauderdale. Scott went for the jugular, concentrating his firepower on ads that highlighted Crist's ties to convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein of Fort Lauderdale. One of the ads is misleading, but the TV stations keep running it, forcing Crist to push back with his own buys.

The result: Crist increased his spending here by 264 percent, or an additional $445,000, while Scott's buy just nudged up 5 percent. Overall, Scott's spending in Miami still dwarfs the Crist campaign: $2.8 million to $615,000.

Contact Marc Caputo at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.