In Florida, Clinton-Trump race suffocated Rubio's challenger
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As a political scientist, I personally believe that the more people pay attention to politics, the better off our country will be. This election has generated media attention like none other in the history of our republic, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Nonetheless, people are tuning in and early evidence from Florida suggests they are turning out.

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Yet, for all of the attention that the Clinton–Trump reality show has created, there have been costs. Lost in the craziness of the 2016 presidential election are the thousands of other political offices and candidates on the ballot.  

The air has been completely sucked out of the room by the presidential race; our country is consumed by the top of the ticket and is not paying nearly enough attention to down ballot races.  While this can regularly be said about state house and state senate races, how often do U.S. Senate races go under the radar?  

Not only is Florida a swing state, but Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio heckled by protestors outside immigration detention facility Bill to protect work licenses of student loan debtors is welcome development Political figures pay tribute to Charles Krauthammer MORE, a former presidential candidate (who said he was quitting the senate, only to run again after he lost the Republican presidential primary) is up against Congressman Patrick Murphy, a rising star in the Democratic Party.

A senate race with that backdrop would usually generate national headlines but — add to the mix that this senate seat could determine party control of the senate — it is shocking that there has been so little attention paid to these candidates.  

The Rubio-Murphy match-up has been a fascinating race, and it is one in which the incumbent Republican has a stranglehold advantage.  

The polls the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research lab did in early October showed Rubio up over Murphy 47 to 41 points, and then 49 to 43 points in our late October poll.

The static 6-point margin is consistent with other polls, as well. Of the 75 polls taken since April of 2016, and tracked on Fivethirtyeight.com, Murphy trails in each one. Aside from a few polls that showed a tie, Rubio has led in every poll taken. To get a sense of what that means, even when things looked bleakest for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE, a couple weeks ago there was still the occasional poll that showed him up by some margin.  

 

How is Rubio so firmly in control of a purple state that prior to this week has seen Clinton ahead in the polls?

There are three factors that are giving Rubio the edge right now. First, Rubio is a Cuban from south Florida. Democrats in 2016 are banking on winning huge margins of the Hispanic vote, thanks to Trump’s rhetoric alienating that bloc of voters. Rubio, not surprisingly, is holding his own among Hispanics. Our late October poll only had Rubio down 9 points among Hispanics — a number Rubio can easily overcome with older white Republican votes.  

Second, Rubio is making inroads among Democrats that Murphy is not replicating among Republicans. In our early October poll Rubio was getting 18 percent of the Democratic vote, while Murphy was only getting 11 percent of the Republican vote.

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At the end of October, those numbers had barely changed — Rubio was getting 17 percent of Democrats and Murphy only had 10 percent of Republicans. That is certainly influenced to some degree by Rubio’s relative strength among Hispanics, but the biggest reason Rubio is ahead is the attention, or lack thereof, that this race has received.  

Simply put, people do not know who Patrick Murphy is.

In early October (less than month before Election Day, and after absentee ballots were already being cast) our poll asked the standard favorability question about both Rubio and Murphy.  

Marco Rubio was net +6 in favorability, the same as Murphy, however, only 7 percent of voters “didn’t know” how to rate Rubio’s favorability and a mere 2 percent said they never heard of him.

Compare that with Murphy’s numbers: 15 percent “didn’t know” how to rate his favorability and a whopping 21 percent said that they never heard of him. That adds up to 36 percent of the voters who are unable to say if they have a favorable or unfavorable view of Murphy.  

To the average person that may not seem like a big deal, they may say, “there was a month left” or “all people need to know is their party affiliation,” but name recognition is vital in any election.  

In this race, likely voters who simply “didn’t know” how to rate Murphy’s favorability are +25 voting for Rubio, and the voters who “didn’t know” how to rate Rubio are +20 voting for Murphy.  Even more striking is what happens when you look at those who “never heard of Murphy,” they are +36 voting for Rubio! And that’s 21 percent of the electorate.  

As it is with all campaigns, there is a bitter chicken or egg problem for lesser known candidates: which comes first, the money for advertising that increases name recognition, or name recognition and support that leads to more donations?  

In this case, Murphy’s lack of name recognition and lagging poll numbers led to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulling $10 million and the Senate Majority PAC pulling another $3 million of ad buys from Florida in October.  

Just this past week Murphy was able to get a fraction of that money back, and has been the recipient of full-throated support from President Obama on the campaign trail.  

Thursday on the campus of UNF in Jacksonville, Florida, President Obama spent a solid 10 minutes of his 30-minute speech hammering Rubio and hyping Murphy. Unfortunately for Murphy and Democrats, the 6,000 people at the Clinton campaign rally are not enough to turn the tide in a state with nearly 13 million voters and Murphy so far behind in name recognition.   

This name recognition deficit is the biggest hurdle a challenger of an incumbent faces, but especially when they are trying to unseat a former presidential primary candidate with national exposure. But, this is not typically an issue in a senate race this important.  

The atypical circumstances of Clinton and Trump have impacted this race — along with many other down ballot races throughout the county.

Keep an eye on the incumbents of both parties in this election, because for all of the anti-establishment rhetoric, if people don’t know who you are, they are not going to vote for you.  

Clinton and Trump have generated media attention like no other presidential race in history, yet in doing so, they may have suffocated the hopes of thousands of down ballot challengers — and Patrick Murphy is at the head of the list.

Binder is an associate professor of Political Science and faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida. 


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