Democrat Alex Sink leads Republican rival Rick Scott by 7 percentage points in the Florida governor's race, according to a new poll that shows she's highly popular with the state's swing voters: independents.
No candidate in recent memory has won the Governor's Mansion without the support of voters who have no party affiliation, and in the latest survey they favor Sink by a 16-point margin, says Brad Coker, director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
Sink is also winning big among women, in vote-rich Southeast Florida and in her home base of Tampa Bay, which often sides with the winner in statewide elections, Coker said.
This general election poll surveyed 625 likely voters from Sept. 20 through Sept. 22. The error margin is 4 percentage points.
That means the 47-40 race in Sink's favor is far from decided. Sink, who has been in office four years compared to the political newcomer Scott, hasn't cracked the crucial 50 percent mark for a winning candidate.
Ironically, Coker said, Sink received some help from her former rival, Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, badly damaged Scott's reputation among voters of all stripes in the "brutal" Aug. 24 Republican primary.
But don't call the Nov. 2 elections for Sink just yet.
"I still think there's a Republican wave that's going to come across Florida," Coker said. "And Rick Scott's got millions and millions of dollars to spend."
Scott, an independently wealthy candidate, is already using his checkbook to knock Sink down a notch — a sign that the Republican's campaign shows he's trailing or that the race is too close for comfort.
The ads fault Sink for supporting President Barack Obama's increasingly unpopular agenda and for backing a passel of higher taxes through the years. And Coker says that in Florida, ''tax is a four-letter word." Scott also is running a positive ad that features his mother.
Also, the Republican Party of Florida is running another ad that smacks Sink for her role in state investment losses. Though the ad misleadingly suggests Sink is solely responsible for the bad investments, the commercial is part of a potentially damaging narrative that attempts to portray Sink as a poor money manager. Being the chief financial officer of a state with such bad finances doesn't help, either.
"She has a duty to the taxpayers, and she has failed," said Brian Burgess, a Scott spokesman. "People still don't know her and her record yet. And that's our job — to let people know her record because she doesn't want to talk about it."
Burgess also notes that a Mason-Dixon poll showed Scott was losing to McCollum by 9 percentage points just before the Aug. 24 primary. But Scott won the race by 2.8 percentage points.
Coker said Scott's victory was sealed thanks to a stronger-than-expected early-vote campaign that banked a high number of votes before McCollum's momentum increased. Scott also brought out less-likely voters, but the preprimary polls surveyed likely voters.
Coker said Sink can harness the "change message" of this year's election by running against Tallahassee, controlled by Republicans, many of whom teamed up with McCollum to repeatedly point out the $1.7 billion fraud scandal tied to Scott's former hospital business, Columbia/HCA.
The onslaught of negative ads weakened Scott.
Fewer Republicans back Scott compared to the percentage of Democrats who back Sink, the Mason-Dixon poll shows. It also shows that 30 percent of voters have a favorable view of Scott, while 47 percent have an unfavorable view. About 44 percent of voters have a favorable view of Sink, while 23 percent have a negative view of her.
Sink's campaign has shown a willingness to press the attack.
"Floridians don't trust a man who was forced to resign from a company that pled guilty to massive amounts of fraud, including 14 felonies," Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said.
Another legacy of the Republican primary could aid Sink as well: the immigration debate, which has turned off many Hispanic voters. While the poll shows Scott leads among Hispanics by 9 percentage points, Coker said Scott needs a bigger margin — especially from Miami-Dade — to mimic the success of former Republican candidates Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.
Assuming Sink can survive the assault on her record, Coker said her limited time in office could be an asset in a general election in which Democrats and independents are less anti-incumbent than the Republicans who voted in the primary against McCollum.
Coker said Scott's success lies in running against Washington, which is controlled by Democrats. Nationally, both parties want to hold the Governor's Mansion in two years to help control the process for drawing new congressional districts.
"It's not a mistake to tie her to Obama," Coker said. "If voters are mad enough at Washington and motivated enough, some Republicans will win who you might otherwise think would lose."