Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza has attempted to distinguish Florida Governor Charlie Crist from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Many commentators (myself included) have compared Crist and Lieberman.
Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut because many liberals opposed his stance on the Iraq War. Lieberman, however, ran as an Independent and won the election by drawing votes from moderates and from his loyal supporters among Democrats. Similarly, Crist faces deep anger from conservative Republicans because he has embraced moderate and liberal causes (including the stimulus package).
While the conservative base of the Republican party despises Crist, he maintains a lot of support among moderate Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Indeed, a recent Quinnipiac poll shows that Crist would lose the Republican primary in a landslide, but that he would defeat Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek in a 3-way general election.
Despite these similarities, Cillizza describes independent runs by Lieberman and Crist as fundamentally distinct. Cillizza makes several claims to support his argument.
First, Cillizza argues that the Florida Senate race would involve a "real" 3-way race, while the Connecticut contest did not. Cillizza overstates this "distinction."
Polls consistently show that Meek is relatively unknown. This situation will remain unchanged while the media continue to focus on the battle between Crist and Rubio and the possibility that Crist will run as an Independent. If Crist abandons the Republican Party, the media will direct all of their analysis (again) on Crist's campaign, leaving Meek to struggle for attention.
Polls also show that Crist would trounce Meek in a two-way competition, but that Meek would fair better against (but still lose to) Rubio. The 3-way race is only "real" in Florida because no Republicans would support Meek, but many Democrats would vote for him or for Crist. Very few Democrats, however, would vote for Rubio. A potential 3-way race is competitive because Crist has the power to draw moderates from both parties (and from among Independent voters) -- which is precisely what makes this contest like the one in Connecticut.
Cillizza, however, predicts that by running as an Independent, "Crist runs the real danger of lacking any sort of electoral base to depend on." Cillizza's argument, however, does not appreciate the complexity of the Florida electorate -- which has proven to be among the most "purple" in the nation (see here). Cillizza's observation also contradicts his own claim that a 3-way race in Florida is "real." The race is competitive precisely because Crist's base consists of moderates from both parties and from among unaffiliated voters.
Second, Cillizza argues that Lieberman could frame his abandonment of the Democratic Party as a principled stance. Crist, however, would look more opportunistic, because polls show he has no chance of winning the primary. This difference is not meaningful because under the rules in Florida, Crist can only decide to run as an Independent before the primary. He cannot choose the path that Lieberman pursued and run as an Independent after losing the primary election.
Cillizza's final two arguments are too speculative to merit much discussion. Specifically, he predicts that Crist will encounter difficulty raising money and putting together a team of advisers. These issues might very well hinder Crist's rumored Independent run, but they do not seem so inevitable that they distinguish Crist's run from Lieberman's. In 2006, Cillizza predicted deep hardships for Lieberman following his primary defeat, but Lieberman ultimately won the 3-way contest as polls indicated he would. Given this history, Cillizza should take a more nuanced approach to Crist's possible Independent campaign.