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How can Charlie Crist win Florida Senate race as an independent?

Reports suggest that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will announce Thursday that's he's running for US Senate as an independent. If he does, he has to thread a political needle to win.

Students shout and show their support for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist as he is interviewed by local TV stations during his visit to McFatter Technical Center in Davie on Friday. He is set to announce his decision on whether he will run for Senate as a Republican or independent Thursday.

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If Florida Gov. Charlie Crist bolts the Republican Party and runs for his state’s open Senate seat as an independent – as reports suggest he will announce Thursday – how does he win?

Just look at Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, who in 2006 faced a situation similar to the one Crist faces now. Senator Lieberman, then a Democrat, lost his party’s primary to a more ideologically pure opponent, even though Lieberman was a three-term incumbent. He declared himself an independent, courted conservative support, and won reelection fairly handily.

Governor Crist’s path to victory over former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a conservative Republican, and likely Democratic nominee, US Rep. Kendrick Meek, might look the same as Lieberman’s.

Here’s what Crist could do: Say his party has changed, but he has not, and then declare an independent candidacy. Then, he would appeal to Democrats to put bygones aside and vote for pragmatism, and hope to draw as many votes from what used to be the other side of the aisle as possible to offset the big chunk of Republican voters he would surely lose.

Then he would need to squeak through in a three-way race in which he would be unlikely to get more than 36 or 37 percent of the vote.

Possible, yes. But likely?

It’s certainly possible. But it is not the most likely scenario.

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“It’s quite a needle to thread and it’s possible that he’s simply waited too long to make this move,” writes political analyst Nate Silver on his popular political blog FiveThirtyEight.com.

However, at this point no one is certain what Crist is going to do, with the possible exception of Crist himself.

Numerous news outlets on Wednesday reported that Crist has told confidantes that he will announce he is leaving the GOP and running as an independent at a scheduled appearance on Thursday in St. Petersburg.

But Crist himself denied this to the Associated Press. He said he has told no one of his decision.

Once the overwhelming favorite to capture the Republican nomination for Florida’s open Senate seat, Crist is now some 20 points behind Mr. Rubio, a favorite of "tea party" groups, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Rubio seems the almost certain primary victor.

That same Quinnipiac survey showed Crist narrowly beating Rubio and Representative Meeks in a three-way race.

So he should run, right? Maybe not, say analysts.

Threading the needle

The moment he leaves the Republican Party, he’ll face at least three instant problems.

  1. GOP party organizations will stop sending him money, as will GOP donors, and he’ll have to scratch for cash.
  2. His staff will quit and he’ll have to hire anew.
  3. Voter perceptions of him will change and his standing vis-à-vis his challengers will start to shift.

For one thing (and this is fairly obvious) he’ll lose Republican voter support. Right now, about one-third of self-declared Republicans support him, but a certain number of them will desert him for being what they would perceive to be a turncoat, points out Mr. Silver.

Crist will look to Democrats and independents to replace this lost support. Meek is relatively unknown in much of the state, which means it is possible the well-known Crist could attract a substantial number of Democrats.

But since 1998 no Democratic candidate for statewide office in Florida has won less than 78 percent of self-identified Democratic voters, according to a Pollster.com analysis. So it is also possible that few Democrats will defect.

Right now, Crist is winning 30 percent or so of self-declared independents in most polls. That will have to rise quite a bit if he is to have any chance of pulling a Lieberman.

Under a very favorable electoral breakdown, in which Crist wins 50 percent of the independent vote, he still tops out at around 35 percent of the total Florida electorate, according to Pollster.com.

“That means he would have to pray that Rubio and Meek literally split the rest of the vote down the middle,” writes Pollster.com analyst Harry Enten.

Related:

The Charlie Crist conundrum: lots of choices, none of them good

'Tea Party' eyes big prize: the 2010 midterm elections

Repeat of NY-23? Club for Growth targets Crist in Senate race.


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