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Charlie’s Sorry Choices

Few politicians have had a rougher twelve months than Florida’s Charlie Crist, who began the period as the popular governor if America’s fourth-largest state, and now finds himself, as Public Policy polling’s Dean Debnam put it, as someone who “[couldn’t] win a Republican primary for Dog Catcher”. Crist now finds himself trailing fellow G.O.P. Senate candidate Marco Rubio by 32 points, according to PPP’s new poll — the continuation of a long and seemingly inexorable trend.

At this point, Crist has essentially four things he could do. He could take his lumps continue to run for Senate as a Republican, hoping for a turnaround. He could run for Senate as an independent, as many have speculated. He could run for a second term as governor instead — the filing deadline isn’t until April 30th. Or he could quit and go work on his tan. Let’s examine each of these alternatives.

Option 1. Continue to run for Senate as Republican.

Probability of success. Quite low, with the Republican primary of course being the most significant hurdle. Although primaries are significantly more volatile than general elections, Crist now faces an enormous deficit with Rubio and has none of the momentum, and there’s no longer all that much time left as the primary takes place in August. I can’t imagine he has more than a 1 in 10 chance of pulling it out — mostly based on the contingency that some huge scandal develops around Rubio. The good news is that Crist would probably still win the general election if he managed to come back in the primary, although he’s yet to reach 50 percent in most polls against Democrat Kendrick Meek.

Upside if successful. Being a Senator is a fun job! But if some sort of scandal had developed around Rubio — likely the only way that Crist wins — Florida Republicans would only vote for him only though gritted teeth and national ones might be irked with him for the sense that he’d taken out one of their up-and-comers. It’s unlikely that he’d be a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination any time soon and would have to wait out the current political climate instead.

Downside if unsuccessful. Depends on the extent to which he goes strongly negative on Rubio, in which case he might permanently injure his credibility with Republicans, and the extent to which he tries to portray himself as a staunch conservative, which might harm his credibility with independent voters if the needle moves more back toward the center in some future election cycle.

Option 2. Run for Senate as Independent.

Probability of success. Decent; two polls have tested this and found, essentially, a three-way tie between Crist, Rubio and Meek. There are some additional structural disadvantages that Crist would face: it’s tougher to raise money as an independent, for instance. Some bad narrative might also develop around the fact that he was a flip-flopper and/or that he had backed down from Rubio. If I were advising Crist, I’d tell him to really embrace the independent label if he made the switch: do a lot of TV, criticize the polarization in the country, criticize the extremism in the Republican Party, say you won’t caucus with either party if you get elected to the Senate, etc. etc. This would be a message mostly targeted to center-left voters, which is where the swing votes would be in a three-way election since Rubio would still presumably clean up with Republicans.

Upside if successful. Quite high. You’d be one of the lead stories of the cycle and there would be a lot of buzz around a Presidential bid as an independent in either 2012 or 2016. And you’d continue to command a lot of attention as a perpetual swing vote in the Senate.

Downside if unsuccessful. If you came very close, perhaps not that bad, as you’d still become something of an icon for voters (and pundits) who were fed up with the two major parties. If it went really badly, though, you’d have managed to confuse and offend just about everyone with little to show for it.

Option 3. Run for Re-Election as Governor.

Probability of success. Fairly low, actually. The same PPP poll that found Crist trailing Rubio by 32 points also found him trailing Bill McCollum, the leading Republican candidate for governor, by 14. That’s not quite as bad a deficit to overcome, but it doesn’t account for the additional annoyance voters might feel if Crist switched races, which could come across as entitled and presumptuous. In addition, the general election could get tricky, as Crist’s approval ratings are tepid and as Democratic candidate Alex Sink — although now trailing McCollum in most polls — is considered a decent candidate.

Upside if successful. I’d think that being governor of a state as large (and sunny) as Florida would be a better job than being one of 100 senators in Washington, although Crist apparently felt differently enough to have been motivated to switch races in the first place. Crist would have a chance to rebound along with Florida’s economy and some reasonably flexible choices later on.

Downside if unsuccessful. There’s the potential for more embarrassment than if Crist just ran for Senate instead, since (i) he’d have been voted out of office as an incumbent; (ii) he’d essentially look like a loser twice over for having given up on his Senate bid and then lost the governor’s race as well.

Option 4. Give up and work and work on your tan.

Probability of success. You can’t lose!

Upside. You don’t have to endure a stressful campaign and the gaffes, etc. it might entail. You can avoid the embarrassment of taking a loss. Republican thought leaders who have a lukewarm impression of you might be more likely to return your phone calls if you’d withdrawn from the race with your dignity still attached made things easy on Rubio.

Downside. You’d still look like something of a quitter and wouldn’t get to benefit from any of the free media exposure that a high-profile campaign entails. You wouldn’t have a job.

If I had to rank these options on Crist’s behalf, they’d probably go #2, #4, #1, #3. Running for Senate as in independent is his best chance to be an elected office-holder when January 2011 rolls around and his best chance to remain someone at the center of the national conversation. If Crist wants to limit his downside, of course, then taking the cycle off would be the safest choice, although it’s not clear where he’d go from there.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.