Individual endorsements tend to be over rated as a way of moving persuadable voters. By and large endorsements only matter to the political class and perhaps in some fundraising circles. It’s been my experience as a Florida Democratic operative in the past that the only personal endorsement that actually is worthwhile is that of Bob Graham- he’s the only Democrat in Florida respected by enough voters to make a difference and even his impact tends to be much greater in primaries. I imagine Jeb Bush has a similar standing among Republicans. But beyond Graham and Bush individual endorsements don’t move voters except in small localized instances. However, the Charlie Crist endorsement of President Obama is important for several reasons.
Charlie Crist is a unique figure in Florida politics. Once beloved he’s become polarizing among the political class but still maintains an aura of non-partisanship and credibility with the public at large. As the narrative develops about Republican extremism, the Crist endorsement can help the Democrats take a page out of the GOP playbook . In the past the GOP has adroitly exploited southern Democratic elected officials painting the picture of a party that was out of touch with mainstream America and regional in scope. Zell Miller became the most outspoken critic but previously there were the likes of Bob Bullock, Sonny Montgomery, William Donald Schaefer and others. Here in Florida, countless “Democrats” backed Jeb Bush publicly, including Wayne Mixson, T.K. Wetherell and Senator Ron Silver. The goal of these endorsements was to narrowly define the Democratic party as a fringe element in American society.
Today, the tables are turned. In the last Presidential campaign, the likes of former moderate Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and former Gov. Arne Carlson (R-Minnesota) and Rep. Wayne Gilchrist (R-Maryland) endorsed Obama openly. For the first time in recent memory elected officials of the GOP openly broke with the party. Previously party discipline was so great among Republican elected officials that even the most moderately liberal elected Republicans openly campaigned for George W. Bush, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush in direct contrast to what was happening with many Democratic officials at the very same time.
Crist’s endorsement of Obama while perhaps not moving any voters based specifically on his support, helps to continue to paint a picture of a GOP moving further and further towards the fringe of American politics. Consider also Crist’s personal likability and support. Garnering almost 30% of the statewide vote for US Senate running without a party infrastructure or fundraising apparatus is no small feat. Regardless of Crist’s defeat in 2010, he became the most successful non-major party candidate to run statewide in Florida in 94 years. The last successful non-major party candidate was Governor Sidney Catts who after losing the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1916 (when Florida was essentially a one-party state) ran on the ticket of the Prohibition Party railing against Catholics and Blacks. While Florida elected many segregationists before 1970, Catts is the only out and out racist who used overt racist rhetoric on the stump, ever elected statewide.
Crist is obviously very different from Catts and his popularity stems from a cheery personality and his advocacy of a populist agenda. Populism by nature rejects ideology and Crist’s endorsement of the President furthers the narrative that those looking for real solutions to real problems need not consider the GOP ticket. So while Crist himself may not move votes, the endorsement itself is highly significant moving forward.