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Could a Meek departure have given Democrats a chance in Florida?

By Aaron Blake

The controversy over whether Bill Clinton urged Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek to drop out of the Florida Senate race in order to help Gov. Charlie Crist has caused an understandable wave of interest in the race.

All sorts of questions are now being asked about what happened, who was involved, and whether Meek was actually on the cusp of withdrawing.

The more apt question, though, is whether it would have mattered.

Let's take a look at what polling data tells us on that question.

The last pollster to look at a Rubio-Crist matchup without Meek was the automated and Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, which showed the race deadlocked at 46 percent. With Meek in the race, the same poll showed Rubio at 44 percent, Crist at 33 percent and Meek at 21 percent. That's a net gain of 11 points for Crist without Meek in the race.

That's also pretty consistent with where the candidates stand on the ideological spectrum. Very few Meek voters would be likely to switch to Rubio, given that Rubio is an unapologetic conservative and Meek is a standard issue Democrat.

Given the choice, most Meek voters would have been faced with either abstaining, voting for Crist, or voting for a Democratic nominee who remains on the ballot but has withdrawn from the race. Those voters would still likely show up at the polls, though, given a hotly contested governor's race that is going down to the wire, so they might have gone for Crist in big numbers even if there wasn't much enthusiasm for his candidacy.

But even if a Meek exit would have drawn the race to a virtual tie, that's not the same as putting it in the toss-up column. That's because Florida is an early voting state -- and people have been voting since Oct. 18.

Would-be Crist voters had already been voting for Meek for weeks. Already, about 1.7 million Floridians have cast their ballot. That number is more than one-third of the total number of voters who cast ballots in the last midterm election in 2006.

So even if Meek had dropped out and Crist and Rubio split the vote evenly, they would only be doing so on whatever portion of ballots had yet to be cast.

For argument's sake, though, let's say Meek dropped out before any early votes were cast. Would Crist have had a chance then?

The PPP poll suggests that he would have, but even the pollster is skeptical that Crist would have been able to win that race.

PPP's Tom Jensen points out that there is little enthusiasm among African-Americans -- about 15 percent of Florida's population -- for Crist. That's part of the reason that Crist's unfavorable rating among Democrats has often been over 25 percent. (Generally, a party's nominee will have much lower unfavorables among his or her base.)

There's also the problem that, if Meek had dropped out and Crist were to become the de facto Democratic nominee, the governor almost certainly would lose some portion of the 15 to 20 percent of Republicans that he has been pulling. PPP tested this, finding that Crist's support among Republicans would have plummeted to the low single digits if he promised to caucus with Democrats in the Senate.

(On Friday, a Crist adviser said that Crist would indeed caucus with Democrats.)

About the only thing that might have saved Crist would have been if Meek dropped out, enthusiastically endorsed the governor and spent the remaining days campaigning around the state for him. It's hard to imagine Meek doing that ever, however, given the vitriol he leveled at Crist since becoming the party's nominee on Aug. 24.

All in all, a Meek departure from the race would have marginally improved Crist's chances of winning. But, it's hard to argue that Crist would immediately have moved into a jump ball with Rubio who has for months been building his lead.

By Aaron Blake  | October 29, 2010; 3:57 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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