Howard Dean and Barack Obama may insist Florida's Democratic presidential primary was meaningless, but Florida Democrats aren't buying it.
According to a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 statewide poll, the Democratic presidential contenders' boycott of Florida had little effect on Democratic voters' choices here, and an overwhelming plurality want the officially meaningless Jan. 29 results to count.
Also, one in four might not vote for the party's nominee if Florida winds up with no say in the Democratic nomination.
"If there's one thing that this survey says, it's that you have to acknowledge the Jan. 29 primary on some level,'' said pollster Tom Eldon, of Schroth, Eldon & Associates, which conducted the poll of registered Democratic voters. "You really can't say the Florida primary was a nonevent to voters. It was a nonevent to (DNC chairman) Howard Dean according to the rules of the DNC."
A record 1.75-million Florida Democrats voted in the January primary, which Hillary Rodham Clinton won by 17 percentage points, but as punishment for holding the election earlier than allowed by Democratic National Committee rules, no delegates were at stake. Now, as a nomination stalemate looms in the close race, the candidates and state and national party leaders are struggling to figure out how and if America's biggest swing state can be counted.
Twice as many Clinton supporters — 56 percent to 27 percent — want the Florida primary to count. Still, even among Obama supporters polled, the idea of counting the January primary is slightly more popular than holding a new election or dividing Florida's delegates evenly between the two candidates.
"We've been not counted so often and especially in this state that has felt for so many years that our vote doesn't count, to not count our votes again would be so detrimental — especially for our youth,'' said Tallahassee resident Molly Gosline, 45, executive director of a nonprofit group and a Clinton supporter.
But Carly Loiseau, a 29-year-old nurse and Obama supporter in Wesley Chapel, didn't bother voting in January because she knew Florida had no delegates. Loiseau said it would be unfair to count the election now.
"I blame the state of Florida, the Democratic Party. They knew the rules and they could have followed the rules like the rest of the country, but they chose not to,'' said Loiseau, a nurse.
Other key findings in the poll:
• Obama has gained strength in Florida since the January vote, with Clinton's lead down to 9 points, 46 percent to 37 percent. Clinton holds the advantage among white Democrats, by 33 points, and among Hispanics, 20 points, while Obama leads among African-Americans, 74 percent to 12 percent.
• Florida Democrats point blame for the primary debacle in several directions: 28 percent blame Republican leaders in the Legislature, 25 percent blame Dean and 20 percent blame the Florida Democratic Party.
• The state party's decision to scrap a proposal for a do-over primary by mail looks wise, as fewer than 1 in 10 Democrats said they consider that the best solution. Only one in four said they would trust a mail-in election to show the will of the people.
• The marathon primary appears to have hardened feelings among Obama and Clinton supporters in Florida, with 52 percent saying the process has hurt Democrats' chances in November.
The telephone survey of 600 registered and frequent Democratic voters in Florida was conducted March 15-17 for the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and the Miami Herald. The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Both candidates voluntarily signed oaths that they would not campaign in Florida, and there has been a battle for perceptions ever since over whether the contest was meaningful without active campaigning.
The poll suggests that most Florida Democrats think it was.
Only 15 percent of those surveyed said their main interest in the Jan. 29 election was the Amendment 1 tax reform initiative, while 43 percent said the Democratic primary was the big draw and 40 percent said both were equally important to them. Likewise, 56 percent said the lack of campaigning had "no effect at all" and 16 percent said it had a "major effect."
Even if many of the Democrats who say they may not back the party nominee in November as a result of the delegate mess eventually soften, the Times poll underscores the serious implications in a state notorious for dead-heat races.
"I would not want to be Howard Dean watching a Florida recount with a thousand-vote (spread) and seeing 23 percent of the Democratic votes having gone to John McCain, (and) meanwhile I refused to compromise to seat the Florida delegation,'' said Eldon. "Because if that happens, Howard Dean will be the new Ralph Nader."
But before Democrats worry about the general election, they have to resolve the nomination.
More than one in five supporters of Obama and Clinton said they would not be satisfied if the other candidate won, but half said they would like to see either Clinton or Obama wind up as the vice presidential candidate.
That prospect was much more appealing to Clinton backers — 59 percent like the idea of Obama as a running mate. Only 42 percent of Obama supporters like Clinton in the No. 2 slot.
Male Florida Democrats narrowly prefer Obama, and Democrats under 49 support him over Clinton. But the former first lady leads handily among older voters and women, and she leads Obama among white men.
Obama is strongest among Democrats in the conservative Panhandle, where 44 percent back the Illinois senator and 42 percent the New York senator, even though it's a statistical tie. In South Florida, where Clinton was 16 points ahead in a January poll, her lead has shrunk to three percentage points — 45 percent to 42 percent, also a statistical tie.
In the Tampa Bay area, though, Clinton leads Obama 48 percent to 30 percent.
Count Raymond Alonzo, an 81-year-old retiree of Valrico, among the enthusiastic Clinton supporters in the bay area disgusted by talk of Florida's primary not mattering: "What's the point of having an election if it's not going to count?"
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.