Few strategists know Florida’s complex political terrain better than Steve Schale, the man who helped Barack Obama win the Sunshine State in 2008.
C&E: How did you get your start in Florida politics?
Steve Schale: I went to Sewnaee, which is a small school in Tennessee. When I came back to Florida after college I actually thought I would go into the marina business, because that was in my family. But I always liked politics for the same reason I like football—there’s such a competitive side to it. A buddy of mine, Doug Wiles, ran for the state House when I was 21 years old. I started showing up at his office and he eventually hired me. Somehow we won that campaign. If I had to write a memo on how I probably couldn’t do it.
Actually, the primary source we used for guidance was an old Newt Gingrich GOPAC manual on running for public office. One of Doug’s friends had gone to a GOPAC conference and had brought it home. We pretty much just followed that damn thing. So maybe credit Newt for that win.
C&E: And you continued working in the legislature after that?
Schale: I worked as Doug’s aide in the state House after he won. He ended up getting reelected in a bad year for Democrats in 1998. Then I just developed sort of a niche of running state House races. I was the press secretary for Democrats in the legislature for a few years and worked for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In 2005, I ran the state House caucus operation. I’m one of those guys who never had a strong desire to go to Washington. Florida is home to me. Fortunately, I didn’t know what losing felt like until 2002. I didn’t lose anything for my first six years in politics. And the first presidential I worked on was obviously an eye opener since I ended up running a major state.
C&E: Is there something to be said for presidential campaigns hiring proven local talent like the Obama camp did with you in Florida?
Schale: You know, when I went to Chicago in 2008 I went up there as much for a job interview as I did to help walk them through why I thought Florida was really winnable. But when I got the job the criticism I heard in the ether was, “He doesn’t have enough caché. He’s not a major political leader.” So there’s always that kind of thing. The one thing I give David Plouffe a ton of credit for in 2008, whether it was with me or with other folks, is that they really did try to hire people who understood the terrain of their states. A state House race is similar in a lot of ways and in 2008, we really were able to break the state down and organize it at a micro level. For a lot of people who have come through Florida and run the state in the past, the first time they were ever here was when their plane touched down. This is a complicated place. I think there are pieces of the terrain you only pick up by working through it.
C&E: How much more of a concern is Florida for President Obama in 2012 than it was in 2008?
Schale: There will never be another 2008. It’s a cliché that it was the election of a lifetime, but it really was. I do think it’s important to look at how we ran Florida that year. From John Kerry to Barack Obama, there was about a 650,000 vote change. I think a good chunk of that was obviously registration and base turnout, and another chunk of it was shifting demographics among Hispanics. The third piece is that we actively competed in a way that I don’t think any campaign in Florida has before in certain swing counties. Without all of that working together, we wouldn’t have had the margin we did. If you actually count up all the people who have voted in Florida since 1992, which was basically when we became a competitive state, the largest margin of victory anybody had was five points. So when you tally up the 32 million votes over the last five presidential elections in Florida, you find that the margin between Republicans and Democrats over those five cycles is only 50,000 votes. That’s less than two-tenths of a percent. Just by the nature of the state, it’s going to be extremely close here.
C&E: In terms of TV spending, is there a way to get some efficiency out of the major markets in Florida?
Schale: I think when you’re operating at tens of millions of dollars a buy, that’s sort of less important at some level. But I went back to look at Kerry in 2004 and then Obama in 2008. The biggest chunk of change comes in the Orlando market, the Tampa market, the West Palm market, and at some level the Jacksonville market. In terms of focusing your effort, it’s not exactly one to one, but the cost of TV in Tampa and Orlando combined is not much more than buying the Miami market alone. At this point, we’re pushing up to where it costs $2 million a week to be on TV statewide in Florida.
C&E: How much of a squeeze on airtime do you think campaigns will see in the state this fall?
Schale: It’s going to be insane. You could look at a scenario where the old rule—running 1,000 or 1,500 points—is just thrown out the window. You may need to be doing 2,500 to 3,000 points this time. It’s not inconceivable to think that between the presidential and the U.S. Senate race in Florida we see somewhere between $250 and $300 million spent on TV. Now, when you try to figure out how many points that is, you can see it’s just going to be completely inundated. I’ve got a couple of friends running for Congress this time and that’s going to be the real challenge when you get down to these down ballot races. How do you communicate in an environment where you might have enough money to go up with 900 points a week in Tampa or 800 points a week in Orlando, but Obama’s in those markets with 3,000 points?
C&E: Is there any way to work around it?
Schale: Well, I think there’s a 2010 point to be made here. If you look back at the markets where Alex Sink basically lost the governor’s race, the majority of the ads run in three out of four of those markets were hugely federal in nature. They had Congressional races where there were 8,000 or 10,000 points of TV a week talking about federal issues. We were basically the only ones trying to talk about something different. That was where you saw a huge drop off and that’s the challenge. For 2012, it’s really just a race by race question. If you’re running in Tallahassee, it’s probably not as big of an issue. But if you’re running against Allen West, there’s probably going to be $10 million in that race anyway. I don’t think there’s a good answer for it.
C&E: Do you think Florida Democrats would welcome Charlie Crist if he wanted to run as a Democrat?
Schale: You know, I’ve gotten to know him a little bit over the past few years and he’s an interesting guy. When I go to events around the state and talk to donors and political leaders, the bottom line is that everybody just wants to win. I frequently quiz people on Crist and there’s about half of the chattering class in Florida who’s for [him running as a Democrat]. They look at him and see a guy who can win. He can win independents and he’ll get a chunk of Republicans, too. Then there’s the other half that say, “There’s just no way in hell.” I think his real challenge would be if he gets in a primary with a narrow field. At this point, you have seven or eight people talking about running for governor. If they all run and Crist gets in, I think he has an easier time. If he runs and ends up our nominee, I firmly believe that Democrats’ desire to take back the governor’s mansion will trump any concerns they have about Crist.