Turn on the television in Florida this election season, and one can see that it’s nearly impossible to watch a TV show or the nightly news without a campaign ad for the Florida governor’s race.
Chances are, that campaign advertisement is negative.
The recent deluge of campaign advertisements run by both incumbent Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, have been mostly negative and reflect the politically charged nature of the governor’s race. Over $31.8 million have been spent through Sept. 8 on 68,300 advertisements, according to a study released by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which researched data from Kantar Media/CMG on television ad spending across the nation by candidates for state offices. The study did not include ads bought on local cable networks or Internet advertisements, but rather the cost in airtime.
Dr. Robert Crew, a professor of political science at Florida State University who teaches Florida government, says the governor’s race is reflective of the increasing polarization within American politics.
“It’s been highly competitive, highly partisan, this governor’s race is not unlike most races in the country today, as the country is in a partisan era,” Dr. Crew said, reflecting on the bitter competition in a close race between Scott and Crist.
Florida’s reputation as a presidential battleground state makes the governor’s race extremely important to both Democrats and Republicans, with control of the levers of state government in Tallahassee certain to give a key advantage to either political party in the 2016 presidential election. Estimates show that overall campaign spending by both Scott and Crist could exceed $100 million, making it one of the nation’s most expensive governor’s races ever.
Dr. Crew has not been surprised by the large amounts of campaign spending by both sides of the aisle.
“It’s been a national trend, since the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people,” referring to the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United. That ruling gave both corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited amounts of money supporting and opposing any individual candidate through advertisements and other political tools.
A number of political committees, political parties, and a notable independent group are spending large amounts of money to support and oppose both Scott and Crist through political advertisements, rather than donating candidates’ individual campaigns, according to the study.
Under Florida law, individual donations to candidates are capped at $3,000 per election cycle, while donations to political committees are unlimited, giving donors much greater flexibility—and influence—in the form of campaign contributions.
“Let’s Get to Work,” a political committee supporting the incumbent governor’s bid for re-election and the Republican Party of Florida have spent a combined $20.6 million on political advertisements, in comparison to the $176,300 spent by Scott’s official campaign. Similarly, the Florida Democratic Party has spent $8.9 million on advertisements supporting Crist and opposing Scott, compared to the $967,700 spent on advertisements by Crist’s official campaign.
NextGen Climate Action, an environmental group opposed to Gov. Scott, has spent $1.2 million on political advertisements attacking the incumbent governor and is the only independent group found to have been spending money to influence the governor’s race, according to the study.
The influx of independent spending can also be attributed to Florida’s relatively loose campaign finance laws. A new campaign finance law passed by the Florida Legislature last year made it easier for independent groups to raise unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. Additionally, existing laws were changed to allow direct coordination between independent groups and individual candidates on advertisements and other political spending. Florida is unique when it comes to campaign finance laws, as this type of campaign coordination is illegal in most state elections nationwide and federal elections.
As Floridians grapple with a flood of negative advertisements during this campaign season, a key question emerges.
Do negative ads work in persuading voters to oppose a specific candidate?
Not really, according to Dr. Crew.
“A lot of research shows they don’t. Most people already have their minds made up before the campaign begins, and aren’t going to be persuaded one way or the other,” Dr. Crew said.
However, they may work to sour voters’ impressions of the race, with a deepening malaise among the Florida electorate in a bitter race awash by negative advertisements, a multitude of independent groups with political agendas, and seemingly endless amounts of campaign cash. A recent Sept. 17- Sept. 22 survey released by Quinnipiac University shows that less than 4 in 10 likely voters view Scott or Crist honest or trustworthy, a reflection of a race many now see as which candidate is the least damaging option for the state of Florida.
Voter apathy may also play a role in reduced voter turnout for this governor’s race, as less than half of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2010 gubernatorial race between Gov. Rick Scott and his then Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, according to Dr. Crew.
“Floridians don’t vote in high levels, in any election, ” Dr. Crew said. “You just don’t get the feeling that people are feeling really hot about this governor’s race.”
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer