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Politics

Backroom Briefing: Fanning the Controversy

October 15, 2014 - 6:00pm

The cardinal rule of debates in American politics is: Don't make a mistake.

The details rarely matter. (President Gerald Ford was echoing American foreign policy when he said in 1976 that, "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" -- but the statement seemed bizarre to those watching the debate.)

So in the grand scheme, whether Gov. Rick Scott really threatened to boycott Wednesday's debate with former Gov. Charlie Crist, or whether Crist really broke the rules by having an electric fan at his feet, might matter very little. Crist, the Democratic candidate, was the first man on the stage, and was alone for a few minutes, giving the impression that it was Scott, the Republican incumbent, who delayed the debate.

But neither campaign seemed willing to concede anything in the aftermath of one of the most bizarre incidents in Florida politics -- not an easy list to make.

The dispute blew through social media, causing the hashtag #fangate to trend on Twitter, and dominated the post-debate spin room.

The short version of the argument: The Crist campaign had heard that there were complaints about on-stage heat during an event at the same, remodeled venue the week before. Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, who signed the debate agreement for Crist, added a handwritten note: "with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary."

That was significant, because the Scott campaign was quick to point out that the rules pretty clearly prohibited having a fan on stage. "Candidates may not bring electronic devices (including fans), visual aids or notes to the debate, but will be provided with a pad and pen," reads a copy of the rules posted by the campaign.

"So, let's get one thing clear: Rick Scott never refused to take the stage and debate," Scott campaign manager Melissa Sellers said in a lengthy email late Wednesday. "In fact, our campaign was not notified Charlie had even taken the stage because the last we heard, Crist was in an 'emergency meeting' with debate organizers pleading for his precious fan."

The two groups that organized the debate, the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida, seemed to largely agree with Scott. About an hour before the debate, according to a statement issued later by the organizers, the temperature on the stage checked in at 67 degrees.

"[FPA President Dean] Ridings then informed the Crist campaign that there was no temperature issue, and no fan would be needed, or permitted," the groups said Thursday.

The Crist campaign put a fan on the stage anyway, only to be told that it wouldn't be allowed. In the ensuing back-and-forth, debate organizers now say Scott never refused to take the stage; he was waiting for the fan situation to be cleared up.

"Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association did not anticipate or plan for the possibility that a candidate would not honor the debate rules," the statement said. "In retrospect, the debate partners should have been better prepared for this possibility. In addition, we regret that one candidate was allowed to take the stage and allowed to talk before the fan issue was resolved."

The statement drew a sharp response on Twitter from Kevin Cate, an adviser to Crist.

"Debate 'organizers' spinning, when facts are on TV and in writing, is both pathetic and transparent," Cate said in a post on the social media site.

Scott reiterated Thursday that he was waiting to see if Crist was going on stage. Crist Communications Director Brendan Gilfillan mocked that in an email to reporters.

"Who are you going to believe? Rick Scott, or your lying eyes?" Gilfillan wrote. He added later: "Charlie was on stage. Everyone saw it ... because it was on TV."

And that is the visual that will likely be played on the "Daily Show" and other late-night television programs -- where hosts tend to lean to the left and don't dwell on nuance. That could end up being bad for Scott, but it will undoubtedly be bad for the state of Florida's already-battered political reputation.

"It took a debate which should have been informative to citizens and made it really an object of ridicule," said Carol Weissert, a political science professor at Florida State University.

GOING DIGITAL

Scott and Crist have spent a combined $50 million-plus on television ads, mostly slinging mud at each other, in advance of the Nov. 4 election.

But how does TV match up against the Internet in the digital age?

Strategic Digital Services, a start-up founded by Tallahassee lobbyist Matt Farrar and former Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Andy Palmer, has released a new analysis that breaks down the digital footprint of political parties as well as the candidates.

With the help of Florida State University political geographer Nick Quinton, the interactive map -- available at fldigitalatlas.com -- uses voter-registration and social-networking data to unearth how the parties and candidates fare online.

Among Quinton's more interesting findings: Florida Republicans have a bigger online presence than Democrats.

In a state where Democrats hold a voter-registration edge and independents make up a growing portion of voters, the GOP's digital dominance may be explained by the Republican supremacy in the state Legislature, Farrar posited.

Based on Facebook "likes," the data also shows that Scott has a bigger following than Crist.

The analysis found that about 30 percent of Facebook users in the Gainesville, Tallahassee, Tampa and Orlando areas are registered voters. The numbers dip slightly to 26 percent in the state's second largest television media market, Miami, also the No. 2 digital market. The data is especially useful for candidates because, unlike on television, digital advertisements can be targeted specifically to viewers.

Farrar and his colleagues are hoping the map may help persuade some old-school candidates to take their pitches to the Web.

"The data showed us that the voters are there and they're ready to listen to messages," Farrar said.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: Okay if @CharlieCrist can't win #FlGov after this #FLGovDebate I've lost all hope in @FlaDems." -- Justin Snyder (@JustinSnyderFL), a liberal blogger, on Fangate.

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