The New Math in Florida

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The way to the heart of a Florida voter is through the stomach. Bread and butter issues like taxes and the economy tend to work well. A three-way race scrambles the conventional dynamics in ways that even a molecular gastronomist would appreciate.

Do Democrat Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio try to run up their base percentages, trying to keep Crist from building a coalition, or do they try to appeal to the broad middle -- even though the middle doesn't generally turn out in midterm elections?

Put yourself in the mind of Marco Rubio. You want to paint Crist and Meek as two peas in an Obama pod. But Obama isn't unpopular in Florida. So Meek takes the challenge: you bet I'm an Obama Democrat, he says. If Meek gets 80 to 85% of the Democratic vote, that's about 40% of the electorate -- a floor of about 30-32% of the overall vote.

The independent vote will be fairly small -- half of it is worth about 10 points of the statewide vote. As Steve Schale, Obama's campaign manager in Florida put it, "Even on its best day in November, NPA and minor party voters will probably only make up 18% of the electorate, so even if Crist gets 50% of the vote, he only nets 9 points of total statewide vote."

At the same time, if Meek swings too far to the left, he collects very few independents, and can't build on his base. If Rubio swings too far to the right, he gets stuck in the low thirties. Crist could win by pulling 15-20% of Democrats and Republicans from Meek and Rubio and 75% of independents.

So -- the math has changed the political strategy. Meek and Rubio will be working to keep as many moderate independent leaners in their coalition as possible while keeping their bases enthusiastic. Crist will build on his geographic strength -- St. Pete/Tampa, his popularity with African Americans and Jewish voters, the possibility that Puerto Rican-Americans don't cotton to Rubio -- and can begin to peel away voters.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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