With just under 100 days left before Florida voters decide the crucial 2018 election, President Donald Trump held a boisterous rally on Tuesday night with 10,000 people in Tampa where he enthusiastically urged his supporters to back U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis for governor in the upcoming Republican primary.
Trump's backing of DeSantis is already being seen as a fatal blow to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who for most of the last year appeared to rolling smoothly in his quest to succeed Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
1 big takeaway....The Trump primary
The rally in Tampa and the downward drag on Putnam emphatically shows the outsized importance of all things Trump in the Aug. 28 primary.
In a year when toxic algal blooms are fouling the state's waters ,the shooting at Parkland prompted a reluctant Florida Legislature to act on guns, and Stand Your Ground laws are once again being scrutinized- the defining issue in the primary remains the president.
On the GOP side, it's more than just the holding a rally and tweeting out his support. Candidates up and down the ballot in the Sunshine State are arguing with each other on whether someone is a true believer - or whether someone had once been opposed to Trump before his election in 2016. Case in point: Sen. Greg Steube unearthing old tweets by Rep. Julio Gonzalez to paint him as a "Never Trumper."
Democrats, meanwhile, are skirmishing over who is the most-anti-Trumper, and how strong their opposition is. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum likes to point out how he's calling for Trump's impeachment, while candidate Jeff Greene has called Trump a "traitor." Gwen Graham has called Trump a "bully' and "embarrassment." But this fervor isn't contained to just the governor's race. It's playing out in numerous congressional contests as well.
This election cycle is now worlds away from ones where issues such as class size, education, health care and job growth dominated.
In some ways, it began in 2010 when Gov. Rick Scott used criticism of President Barack Obama and fears of rising national debts as a key part of his campaign. But Scott also highlighted immigration and his plans tor turning around the state's economy as other parts of his campaign message.
Just before Trump took stage, the Putnam campaign recognized this new reality that has turned the state's politics upside down.
In a statement Putnam praised Trump, yet at the same time bemoaned that DeSantis "has released zero plans on any Florida issue since announcing his campaign."
2. End of traditional campaigns?
The potential demise of Putnam also shows that the tried-and-true methods used by so many candidates in the past are becoming less and less important.
In 2010, Scott's victory showed that an onslaught of television ads could bury a rival who had built up a campaign organization. But if DeSantis wins it shows that a presidential endorsement - and a bevy of appearances on Fox News - can blunt money, staffing and organizational advantages. (It also shows the diminished impact of local media in a world where everything is seen through a DC-centric, not Florida-centric lens.)
Florida's primary usually has been decided by a small subset of voters. Only 22 percent of voters turned out in the 2010 primary. Normally this would mean that a campaign needed to chase absentee voters and engage in a robust campaign of phone calls and personal contacts in order to get voters to participate. That's why a superior organization was considered crucial.
But another key question emerging this cycle is the role of television ads.
Several campaign consultants have said that TV remains a huge factor in Florida, especially among older voters. There's a possibility, however, that the winning candidate from both the GOP and Democratic side will not have spent nearly as much money on television ads as their rivals. As viewing habits - and consumption of information changes among young voters- it's worth noting that this could be a turning point.
3. Recycling the playbook
There is one campaign that is sticking to some tried-and-true strategies and that's the one Scott is mounting against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Scott has sold himself has a successful businessman, but that career was overshadowed by scandal. Scott was forced out as CEO of Columbia/HCA shortly after a federal investigation became public. The end result is that Scott's former company paid a then-record fine of $1.7 billion to settle allegations of fraud.
So in three straight elections Scott campaign team (which includes many of the same consultants each time) has gone on the offensive: It's the other candidate who has ethics problems. They took the state plane, they helped a crook defraud investors, etc. The early press releases and even some of the ads in this year's campaign echo this. They are all designed to force Nelson to defend his actions and behavior. It can be argued that some of the actions aren't of equal weight, but that's not the point.
Two other elements at work: Scott in 2010 and 2014 assailed Obama and his policies and tried to link them to the Democratic nominee. Bashing the federal government was part of the governor's talking points and script. Trump's ascension has made that trickier, but now it's shots at Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and complaints in general about how DC is dysfunctional (no matter that Republicans are in control.)
Last item: Ahead of 2014, Scott made sure to use his power as governor to sidestep or try to mitigate potential controversies bubbling up, especially those happening in key Republican strongholds. It appears to be happening again this year as well.
4. Which voters will show up?
When you talk to those who waged campaigns against Scott, aside from the finger-pointing over went wrong, the real frustration is that he squeezed by each time.
Scott won by nearly 62,000 votes (about 1.2 percent) in 2010 and more than 64,00 votes (1 percent) four years later.
Overall turnout in both elections hovered around 50 percent and Democrats seemed unable to generate the kind of turnout they needed in Democratic strongholds to overtake Scott. (Turnout in the last three presidential contests _ two of which were won by Obama _ have been at 70 percent or above.)
This, however, was before the age of Trump.
Now of course there predictions _ and attempts to debunk _ the notion of a "blue wave" that will translate displeasure with Trump into success at the ballot box. Various Democrats have engaged in back-and-forth over what will make the difference this year: Is it a candidate that appeals to young voters, women voters, or progressives?
But here's another factor for the Republicans _ and the DeSantis camp especially _ to consider: Can they replicate Trump's numbers?
Trump's 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton in Florida was significant because Clinton actually got more votes than Obama did the two times he carried the state. She came in within 6,000 votes of Trump in places like Duval County.
The difference, however, is the margins Trump rolled up in Republican dominated or Republican-leaning counties, fueled in part by an "impressive" surge of voting that took place on Election Day. (See: Election Daze: Voting Modes and Voter Preferences in the 2016 Election - Authors - Smith, McKee, Hood).
And that translated into substantial margins not previously seen. In Lee County, for example, Trump got 44,000 more votes than Mitt Romney did just four years earlier. Will these voters in Florida who propelled Trump victory two years ago transport their support for the president into this year's midterm?
5. The Puerto Rican Diaspora
Last Saturday San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz endorsed Nelson in his battle against Scott and while doing so repeated criticisms against Trump and how his administration responded in the aftermath of last year's Hurricane Maria.
It was the latest chapter in an ongoing push by both Republicans and Democrats to appeal to tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who flocked to Florida after the devastating storm.
Both Nelson and Scott have traveled to the island territory. Scott for his part offered assistance to Puerto Rican evacuees, even going so far as using his emergency powers to sidestep the Legislature in order to pay for it. Candidates for governor have also focused on Puerto Rico. He stared airing a Spanish-language television and digital ad on Wednesday that stressed he had helped Puerto Ricans.
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine chartered a plane and delivered supplies shortly after Maria struck. Gillum traveled to San Juan last weekend.
There are open questions, however, about the impact that evacuees will play in Florida's election.
The Washington Post pointed out a few days ago that so far there is little indication that the Puerto Ricans who left the island are registering to vote in the state.
There's still time for that to change as the election moves closer. But as Orlando legislator Amy Mercado noted to the Post: "Their main focus obviously is going to be survival...The last thing they are thinking about is politics."