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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
March 28, 2018

Early Visit Patterns of 2018 Republican Gubernatorial Candidates: 

Where, When, & Why


Susan A. MacManus

Distinguished University Professor

University of South Florida, Tampa Campus


Amy N. Benner

Research Associate


Florida’s 2018 race for governor has been labeled one of the top gubernatorial races in the country—and a toss-up. [1] The race has started early [2], primarily because for the first time in decades, both Democrats and Republicans have highly competitive primaries. Geographically, Florida is a big state to traverse, yet leaders of both parties have committed to a stronger grassroots-centric campaign than characterized the 2016 presidential election. [3] The primary is August 28. 

The last SayfieReview column we posted analyzed the personal appearance patterns of the four leading Democratic candidates for governor through February 25—Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine, Chris King (see Sayfie Review Archives, March 14). This column analyzes the in-person visits (through March 21) of the two leading GOP candidates who have formally filed to run for governor—Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis. [4] Putnam officially filed on May 2, 2017; DeSantis officially announced on January 29, 2018, unofficially on January 5 on Fox News Channel’s early morning show, Fox and Friends.


Although the dynamics of the two-candidate GOP primary race differ from those of the four-candidate Democratic contest, there is one striking similarity. In each party’s primary battle, at least one candidate has taken a less traditional approach, relying more on media-based “in-person” appearances than on actual in-person appearances that allow more direct contact with potential supporters. These differences in voter outreach strategies reflect divergent calculations as to which approach will yield the highest turnout rate among supporters in what is usually a low turnout primary, especially in a mid-term election year. (See Figure 1.)



Figure 1. Florida Primary Election Turnout Trending Downward Since Mid-1950s


Presidential Midterm


Note: Prior to 2002, primary election turnout data are for the first primary. In 1984, neither major party had a statewide primary.

Source: Florida Division of Elections, accessed Oct. 28, 2017.


The Republicans


Both the Republican candidates currently hold elective offices. Adam Putnam, 43, the current statewide-elected Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is the best known and the closest to being labeled an “insider.” The most recent entrant (Ron DeSantis, 39) has primarily campaigned via appearances on Fox News Channel, where he is a frequent guest and staunch defender of President Donald Trump. Despite being a current member of Congress, he has proclaimed himself the “outsider” candidate, trying to draw a parallel to President Trump, who endorsed him via a Tweet. [5] 

Yet to enter the race is Richard Corcoran, 53, the current Speaker of the House, who has little name recognition statewide. Although he has not formally announced, it is well known that he has been quietly attending local county party meetings for months since telling the Tampa Bay Times in May 2017 that he wouldn’t decide until 2018 on whether to run. He is not included in this analysis but is widely expected to run to the right of DeSantis, splitting the conservative Republican vote. DeSantis’s vote will likely be interpreted as a measure of Trump’s strength in Florida.

Who are Florida’s Registered Republicans?

There were 4.6 million voters registered with the Republican Party of Florida as of January 2018. Registered Republicans are older and less racially/ethnically diverse than Florida’s registered Democrats. (See the previous column for comparable data for registered Democrats.)

Fully 83.4% of Florida’s registered Republicans are non-Hispanic white. Another 11.4% are Hispanic. Relatively few Florida Republicans are black (1.3%), Asian or Pacific Islander (1.4%), or some other race (2.6%). 

Among Florida’s registered Republicans, women slightly outnumber men (50.1% vs. 48.5%). [6] 

Florida’s registered Republicans heavily skew older: 63% are age 50 or older. Among those, a third (33.6%) are age 64 or older. Fewer are ages 30 to 49 (25.1%) or younger (12.0%).

Nearly half (46%) of Florida’s registered Republicans reside in the I-4 Corridor, the area across the center of the state that is made of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota and Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne media markets. (See Figure 2.) Less than a quarter of the state’s registered Republicans (23.8%) live in southeast Florida, [7] although it is the most populous region of the state. 



Figure 2: Nearly Half (46%) of Florida’s Registered Republicans Live in the I-4 Corridor (Tampa and Orlando Media Markets)



Source: Author’s calculations using October 2017 Florida Voter Registration System (FVRS) extract, Florida Division of Elections.


Republicans’ Targeted Voters 

  Florida’s Republican gubernatorial candidates are again counting on a higher Republican than Democratic voter turnout rate in the midterm general election. However, they also are quite aware that in party primary elections, not all Republican blocs of voters turn out at the same rate. Obviously, some blocs (rural and older voters) consistently turn out, while others are more sporadic. Turnout of sporadic voters is often a product of how well a candidate connects with them.

As with Democrats, the challenge for Republican candidates is to craft a winning “coalition” of supporters by engaging them personally on high priority issues via candidate appearances. In the 2018 election cycle, Republicans are targeting:

  • Rural voters (high turnout; conservative).
  • Older voters (super voters).
  • Hispanics, including newly-arrived Puerto Ricans without strong party attachment.
  • Suburban voters, especially women; families. 
  • Gun owners.
  • Conservative religious communities.
  • Agriculture communities.
  • Working-class whites.


Issue Focus


The best indicators of salient issues for Republicans can be gleaned from issues that dominated the 2018 state legislative session ending March 9, 2018: 


  • Economy (jobs; taxes). 
  • Education (school choice; vocational education; higher education).
  • Government regulation and permitting; land conservation.
  • Protection of constitutional liberties (Second Amendment).
  • Drugs (opioids; crime rates).
  • Immigration & border security.
  • Religious freedom/abortion. 
  • Invasive species affecting agriculture (citrus) and environment (The Everglades).

Location of Visits (TV Media Markets)

Comparisons of Putnam and DeSantis’s in-person visit location patterns are not very meaningful at this time. DeSantis’ later entry into the contest and his clear decision to rely more on free media (TV) rather than in-person appearances is somewhat parallel to Democratic candidate Philip Levine’s early strategy, although Levine has relied more on paid TV ads. [9]

It is important to note that of all the gubernatorial candidates to date (Republican and Democrat), only Putnam has won a statewide election. He has won two (2010 and 2014), both for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs—a State Cabinet post. 

Among all the candidates (Democratic and Republican), Putnam has made the most appearances (144) [8] and been the most methodical in his visits strategy. (See Table 1.) He is the only candidate that has made appearances in all 10 media markets. His experience running statewide no doubt explains his heavy emphasis on the I-4 Corridor. In fact, 49% of his appearances have been in the Tampa and Orlando media markets. His formal announcement was in his home county (Polk)—located in the Tampa media market.

Interestingly, DeSantis (from Jacksonville) made his formal announcement in southeast Florida (Boca Raton) and gave a speech at a Statesman of the Year event in Palm Beach County—intentionally promoting his strong connection to Trump whose Mar-A-Lago resort is located there. His traditional in-person visits have been limited (7 compared to Putnam’s 144): 

Table 1. Location of Republican Candidates’ Visits: TV Media Markets



Notes: Purple markets together comprise the famous I-4 Corridor—the most competitive part of the state.

*Total does not add to 100% due to rounding.

Source: Calculated by authors; from date of formal announcement to March 21, 2018.




“Mr. Consistency” Adam Putnam has scheduled appearances in every month since he announced his candidacy in May 2017. (See Table 2.) DeSantis’ visits began in January 2018—too soon to get much of a gauge of his in-person visits strategy, but soon enough to see he is choosing a more cable TV-based approach.


A flurry of Putnam’s visits (his signature “Up & Adam” breakfasts) followed his formal entry into the race. September’s Hurricane Irma saw him giving many appearances in his role as Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Following Irma, he resumed his popular breakfast events. Visits dipped slightly during the December holiday season. Since then, he has stepped up the pace, making more speeches, many aimed at key constituency groups in rural and suburban areas. 



Table 2. Timing of Visits: Republicans



 Source: Calculated by authors; from date of formal announcement to March 21, 2018.


Type of Event

Candidates can and do choose to appear at a variety of events, each aimed at generating support from key constituencies. Examples of the typical types of events at which Florida GOP candidates commonly appear are listed below:

Party organization: regional or county Republican groups; annual statewide meetings; Young Republicans, College Republicans.

Fundraisers: private residences and country clubs.

Town hall/forum: community groups; roundtable discussions—Puerto Ricans, opioid epidemic. 

Rally/March/Tour: bus tours.

Meals w/supporters: breakfasts, luncheons, dinners with local community groups. 

Volunteer/Tour business; pre-and-post Irma; tours of small businesses.

Announcement/speech/appearance: candidacy announcement; speeches at high schools and colleges, formal dinner events, and conferences; appearances at events (no speech on record).

Meeting with professionals: small businesses; agriculture and citrus industry groups.

Community event: picnics, holiday parades, festivals (Wausau Possum Festival).


Reflective of these candidates’ very different approaches, we have added two additional types of events: 

Other:  Putnam’s official visits as Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

Live appearance on major cable network: DeSantis on Fox News Channel.


Putnam and DeSantis have both focused far less on party organization events, town halls/forums, or rallies/marches than their Democratic counterparts. However, in examining their events choices (see Table 3), it is clear these two leading Republican contenders are clearly pursuing dramatically different portions of the Republican base: 

Putnam: Meals with supporters Up & Adam Breakfast; Othervisits as Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services (mostly associated with Hurricane Irma); Speeches—veterans, students, business owners/groups, agriculture communities (targeted audiences—rural/suburban communities, agriculture community, older voters, conservative religious groups, i.e., the traditional Republican base). Like the four Democratic candidates, Putnam has chosen to “theme” or “brand” a series of visits—a Florida First bus tour following his announcement and his popular Up & Adam breakfast events held all over the state. 


DeSantis: Announcement/speechcandidacy announcement, featured speaker at events (targeted audiences—Republican donors, Trump supporters). DeSantis has relied less heavily on visits and more on cable news coverage of him on Fox News Channel (with a significant Trump supporter audience). He has appeared on Fox News Channel 16 times since his announcement. 


Table 3. Type of Events: Republicans (Including DeSantis TV)



Notes: *Other: mostly visits associated with Putnam’s position as Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

**Technically not an in-person appearance; but a live “in-person” appearance into homes via TV.

Source: Calculated by authors; from date of formal announcement to March 21, 2018.




The Republican primary is still in flux, primarily because of the possibility that Richard Corcoran will enter the gubernatorial contest.  Nonetheless, if it remains a Putnam-DeSantis race, there are three big unknowns as to which candidate will win the GOP primary: 


  1. Outsider vs. Insider? Will a majority of the GOP primary voters be looking for an insider or outsider candidate? Will DeSantis’s efforts to cast himself as the “outsider” be successful?
  2. Influence of President Trump on GOP Primary Voters?  Will DeSantis’s more nationalized campaign relying heavily on his “endorsement” by President Trump bring Trump supporters to the polls in an August primary? Will Trump actually campaign for DeSantis in the primary? What percent of the GOP primary voters will vote for DeSantis over Putnam just because the president urges them to do so?
  3. National or State Issues More Important? Are national issues more important to Florida GOP primary voters than more Florida-specific issues? DeSantis’s appearances to date have largely focused on national issues (congressional investigations, DC scandals), while Putnam has stressed more Florida specific issues (economics, especially workforce development, land and water conservation).

Clearly, at this point in the campaign, Putnam has embraced a more traditional personal appearance early visits strategy, while DeSantis has stuck to targeted “in-person” via Fox News Channel appearances to yield him the GOP gubernatorial nomination. According to a recent online poll by Gravis Marketing, the non-traditional “grassroots” approach has enabled DeSantis to statistically catch up with initial frontrunner Putnam, just as non-traditional Democrat Levine has done with Graham and Gillum [10].


The reality is that five months before the August 28 primary, 60% of Republicans are undecided as to which GOP gubernatorial candidate they would vote for. They remain rather removed from the governor’s race, many still suffering from election fatigue and increasingly weary of the contentious politics characterizing the political system at-large. As it will be for Democrats, it will be a real challenge to these GOP candidates to turn out voters in late August, then to put the pieces of the party back together again after what is shaping up to be a highly negative primary. 



  1. The leading election handicappers all rate the Florida governor’s race as a nail-biter: Cook Report: toss-up; Sabato’s Crystal Ball: toss-up; Inside Elections: toss-up. Reported by Nathaniel Rakich, “The 18(!) Governorships Democrats Could Pick Up This Year,”, February 22, 2018. Available at
  2. Early visits are important for a number of reasons. Visiting political party organizations—state and county committees, caucuses, and conventions—helps a candidate secure volunteers early in the process. Grassroots supporters play a major role in turning out friends and neighbors—critical in low turnout primaries. Party activists are also among the those most likely to vote in low-turnout primary elections. Meeting with key groups can lock in endorsements of prominent local community leaders or organizations—political, economic, and demographic. Participating in issue-centric events like rallies, marches, and protests can enhance one’s credibility with critical base constituencies. Media-generating visits to parts of the state where a candidate is less well-known can improve name recognition. The challenge for candidates is to figure out the winning mix! 
  3. Following the close 2016 presidential contest, both parties touted the need to “return to the grassroots” and to rely less on “big data” and incredibly-costly TV ads in a 10 media-market state.
  4. Another prominent Republican, Sen. Jack Latvala, filed to run on August 16, 2017, but left the race unofficially on December 20, 2017 when he announced his resignation from the Florida Senate effective January 5, 2018 following allegations of sexual harassment.  He officially withdrew from the race on March 9, 2018. He is excluded from this analysis.
  5. President Trump Tweet: “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!” December 22, 2017.
  6. Due to data limitations, it is not possible to know the gender of the remaining 1.4%.
  7. The media markets of Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce.
  8. This includes his visits in his role as Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the bulk of which were related to Hurricane Irma (before and after), and problems with the Florida citrus industry (invasive species causing greening) and terrific destruction of trees and crops by Hurricane Irma. 
  9. Although Levine initially relied heavily on TV ads, more recently he has made numerous in-person visits, catching up with or exceeding exceeded the visit counts of his fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
  10. Gravis Marketing, “Florida Polling,” Random survey of 2,212 likely voters, conducted from February 26-March 19, using an online panel of cell phone users, margin of error +/-2.1%, results weighted by voting demographics. See

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