#Fangate: Charlie Crist and Rick Scott fight over fan. Florida governor's race at stake?

At their debate Wednesday night, Florida Gov. Rick Scott refused to walk onstage because his opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, had a small electric fan beneath his podium.

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Democratic challenger Charlie Crist waits for Florida Gov. Rick Scott to start their second debate, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 in Davie, Fla. Scott delayed the start of the debate because of an electric fan below Crist's podium.

What was Florida Gov. Rick Scott thinking? That’s the general reaction of the US punditocracy to the bizarre beginning of Wednesday night’s Sunshine State gubernatorial debate.

Initially, Republican incumbent Govenor Scott refused to walk onstage at Broward College and begin the proceedings, because the Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, had a small electric fan beneath his podium. Scott felt that was in violation of debate rules prohibiting “electronic” devices. Crist believed the rules contained a specific fan-oriented temperature exemption.

In any case, the resulting scene looked terrible for Scott. Crist got to stand up and question whether litigating the definition of a fan was more important than talking about stuff like education and the environment. The flustered moderators kept saying they’d never seen anything like it. Meanwhile, as the minutes ticked away, Scott’s podium stood empty.

“In terms of the instant political theater, this was a major coup for Orange Charlie and you could argue a huge blunder by Scott,” writes Leon H. Wolf Thursday at the conservative RedState site.

Right now, the Florida governor’s race is as tight as they come. The latest poll from the Tampa Bay Times shows Crist and Scott tied. The average of major surveys from this fall at RealClearPolitics gives Crist a slight edge of 1.2 percentage points.

Given that, will the incident of the fan in the nighttime debate tip the race?

Well, it’s possible. For one thing, the fan coverage dwarfed discussion of the issues covered after Scott gave in and strode onstage to begin the debate after about five minutes.

Thursday’s front pages of Florida newspapers all featured photos of Crist standing alone on stage, looking amused as his opponent refused to appear.

“If you thought the issue makes Scott look bad, even petty, then it gets worse. The fan stumble was front page news on some of the biggest newspapers across Florida,” writes BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski in a roundup of the coverage Thursday morning.

Others have noted that the fan’s appearance should not have surprised Scott, given that Crist has a longstanding habit of having fans at his feet during big public appearances. Florida is hot and he sweats. It is something his opponents have laughed at for years, writes The Atlantic’s Molly Ball.

But Fan-gate may be more important as media fodder than as an electoral October surprise. In general, political scientists hold that individual events labeled “game-changers” by pundits often aren’t. They may have an effect on polls for a short period, but then things snap back to where they were before, with fundamentals such as the economy and attitudes toward political parties proving more important in swaying votes.

Plus, while many voters may think the whole thing makes Scott look bad, others may feel Crist lured his opponent into a trap with a clever ploy. That’s the general view of Mr. Wolf at RedState.

“If it was so important for Charlie Crist to have a debate on the substance, why didn’t he just agree to ditch the stupid fan for the sake of the debate going on?” he writes.

Thus the presence of Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie on the Florida gubernatorial ballot may, in the end, have a bigger influence on the outcome than an electric air mover. In some polls, Mr. Wyllie’s drawing upwards of 10 percentage points – with more of that probably coming from Scott’s side than from Crist’s.

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