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By Jay Cost

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Charlie Crist's Foolish Move

What the hell is Charlie Crist doing?

This is insane. Two huge problems.

One, Independents don't win elections to the US Senate in three-way contests. Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman are in office because one party or the other implicitly backed them. By my count, the last candidate to win election to the Senate as an Independent (other than Sanders and Lieberman) was Harry Byrd of Virginia. He won in 1976 because the Republicans did not run a candidate. This is not coincidental; true third party candidacies almost never work:

-When it comes to Congress, there's no such thing as an "Independent." Senators and Representatives inevitably caucus with one side or the other because the party leaders dispense committee assignments. This means that Independents are only really independent when they're campaigning, not legislating.

-Voters vote their partisanship, and most voters are partisan. The 2008 exit poll found that the Florida electorate was 37% Democrat, 34% Republican, and 29% Independent. I'd note that the exit polls don't ask Independents how they lean. Gallup asks that question, and that's why they currently find that only 12% of Americans are "pure" Independents.

-Voters are strategic. Remember the New Jersey governor's race? Independent Christopher Daggett was polling at 10%, but only got 5.8% on Election Day. There's a reason for that. American elections are winner take all, which makes it very difficult for third parties to thrive. Once voters catch wind that a vote for a third party candidate is a waste, they'll bail on that candidate. This suggests that Crist is going to have to "defeat" either Marco Rubio or Kendrick Meek prior to Election Day. Now, how do you suppose he's going to do that? He hasn't been able to defeat Rubio yet. That means he will have to nullify Meek. I'm skeptical he'll be able to do that. As an African American, Meek can expect strong support from the roughly 14% of the electorate that is black. That's one big problem. Another big problem is that Crist will first have to get the Democratic Party establishment to get behind him, and the White House is refusing to take his calls. With good reason. They're banking that Crist will siphon off just enough votes from Rubio to elect Meek. And anyway, with Roland Burris leaving the upper chamber next year, there might not be a single African American Senator in the 112th Congress. Can the Democratic establishment really turn its back on Meek - for Charlie Crist of all people? No way!

-Partisanship is important on Election Day. A party label carries with it a wealth of information that helps poorly-informed voters select the correct candidate. Crist has shed his Republican label, so now nobody knows what he will do in the Senate. How is that going to help inform voters about him? If Crist was more personable, he could run by saying, "Trust me to do what's right!" But he doesn't have that kind of personal appeal.

Second, it would be hard to come up with a strategy that goes against the zeitgeist as much as Crist's plan to run as an Independent. Congressional job approval is getting so low that only members of Congress and their staff approve of the job the legislature is doing. And why? Ask people you know in life and they'll complain about politicians who are only out for themselves, who aren't looking out for the interests of the people. And now here comes good old Charlie Crist, who just a few weeks ago swore off an Independent run. This is a dishonest and nakedly self-interested move, and voters are fed up with this kind of behavior. The only compelling motivation that Charlie Crist has to run as an Independent is so that Charlie Crist can stay in elective office. That is not good enough in a year like 2010. Crist should take a lesson from Arlen Specter, a 30-year veteran of Pennsylvania statewide politics who pulled a similar stunt. He isn't polling above 43% in the RCP average. That's the kind of year this is.

I know why Crist is doing this. He's not on the ballot for governor this year, and he doesn't want to lose his seat at the table. Yet this is not going to work. And it will end his political career for good. The alternative would be to bow out gracefully, heartily endorse Marco Rubio, campaign like the dickens for him in the fall, and wait for the next opening in Florida politics. Instead, he is about to piss off every Republican in the country, and he's not going to win over the affections of the Democrats, who clearly sense an opportunity to get one of their own into the seat.

His political career will be over in just a few short months. What a fool.

-Jay Cost