Florida voters are in the dumps, deeply pessimistic about the state's direction and not particularly impressed with any U.S. Senate candidate. Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene is barely leading U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami in the Democratic primary, according to a new poll — and either looks headed for defeat in the Nov. 2 general election.
In an election year already defined by surprises and shake-ups, the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9/Central Florida News 13 poll underscores the unpredictable Florida electorate. In the homestretch before the Aug. 24 primary, nearly one-third of Democrats have not made up their minds between Greene and Meek.
Looking ahead to Nov. 2 with Greene as the Democrat, voters only barely favor independent candidate Charlie Crist over Republican Marco Rubio, 32 percent to 30 percent, within the poll's margin of error. Greene trails at 19 percent.
If Meek wins the Democratic nomination, the picture looks slightly better for Crist. He beats Rubio 33 percent to 29 percent, while Meek gets 17 percent.
But in a potentially major advantage for Rubio, the poll of registered voters found that three-quarters of Republicans said they were certain to go the polls, while less than half of Democrats said they were a sure bet. The stronger motivation among Republican voters reflects polls nationwide and has boosted the party's hopes of taking back Congress in November.
"The big question for the Democrats is whether they're going to be able to reduce this gap and minimize it,'' said Ipsos Public Affairs pollster Julia Clark. "There's still some time to rally the troops."
The telephone survey of 602 registered voters was conducted Aug. 6-10 by Ipsos Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonpartisan research company. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points overall, 6.4 percentage points for questions based only on Democrats and 5.9 for those based only on Republicans.
An Aug. 9-11 Mason-Dixon poll showed markedly different results. Among likely Democratic primary voters, Meek was crushing Greene, 40 percent to 26 percent. For the general election, the poll showed Rubio leading with 38 percent, compared to 33 percent for Crist and 18 percent for Meek. It had a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.
Pessimists at polls
Everybody is in a bad mood. Only 27 percent of those surveyed in the Times/Herald/Bay News 9/Central Florida News 13 poll said Florida is heading in the right direction, while 55 percent said it's heading in the wrong direction. Republicans and independents were particularly glum, with nearly two-thirds saying Florida is on the wrong track.
Nor does it look like President Barack Obama would be of much help campaigning for Democrats in Florida, where 51 percent of voters surveyed said they disapprove of his job performance and only 44 percent approve.
"I am very unhappy with the Democratic administration as a whole for the entire country," said Betty Clover a 65-year-old retiree and Republican in Port Charlotte, who expects to vote for Rubio in the Senate race.
"The biggest problem is the economy. Government is getting in the way of fixing the economy. We need tax cuts to hire more people. If we don't hire more people the economy is never going to get better."
In a typically low-turnout off-year election, there is a big difference between who voters say they prefer and who they actually turn out to vote for. The telephone survey included registered voters, as opposed to likely voters who tend to pay closer attention to the candidates and issues.
Among the subset of voters who said they were certain to vote, Rubio beat Crist, though it was still within the margin of error.
Crist dropped out of the Republican primary in April after polls indicated his campaign against Rubio was hopeless, but his prospects shot back up as a nonpartisan candidate.
Crist leads in his backyard, Tampa Bay, and in Rubio's, South Florida. He even leads Rubio, the first Cuban-American state House speaker, among Hispanic voters.
Roughly one-third of Democrats and one-third of nonpartisan voters said Crist's decision to run as an independent made them more likely to vote for him, while one-third of Republicans said less likely.
The survey showed Crist winning more than four in 10 Democrats, more than one in three independents, and — despite abandoning the his lifelong party — at least a quarter of Republicans.
"Rubio is to the right of the center of the Republican party so that may be a slightly alienating factor for more moderate Republicans,'' Clark said.
Despite the sour economy and grim outlook on Florida's direction, 51 percent of those surveyed said they approved of Crist's performance as governor — including two-thirds Democrats — and only 38 percent disapproved. More Republicans and independents disapproved of Crist's performance than approved, however.
While his personal appeal crosses party lines, Crist's challenge will be maintaining that broad support even after Democrats settle on a nominee.
"A lot of times when one candidate finally wins the primary that candidate sees a bounce in the general election," noted Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson. "We are likely to see either Meek or Greene receive a bit of a bounce once they win that primary."
Republican Tim Hamilton, a restaurant manager from St. Petersburg, likes Crist and said he did a "fair job" as governor. But that doesn't mean he wants to see him in Washington.
"Charlie Crist doesn't know whether he is a Republican or Democrat — whichever way the wind blows. He kind of goes along to get along,'' said Hamilton, 50. "And frankly I feel like a lot of the voters out there, that we are just damn tired and sick of all the nonsense out of Washington. We want someone to stand up and make a stand on these things."
Rubio fares slightly better with Greene as the Democratic nominee than Meek. About 20 percent of voters were undecided, but when voters were pressed about where they were leaning, Crist's lead over Rubio was 5 points with Meek as the Democrat and 2 with Greene as the nominee.
It's the economy
In the close Democratic primary, Greene received 35 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Meek and 4 percent for former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré. That's within the four-point margin of error. When undecided voters are pressed to settle on a candidate, Greene's lead increases to 8 percentage points.
"The candidates most credible on the economy are going to take this election,'' said Ipsos pollster Clark. "I don't think either candidate has it wrapped up, though Greene has the advantage right now.''
Nearly one-third of the voters — 31 percent — are undecided or prefer a different candidate.
Largo bus driver Maurice Lewis, 76, an independent voter, is among those still trying to make up his mind. Between the nasty Republican gubernatorial primary between Bill McCollum and Rick Scott and the combative Greene-Meek race, he sees little to be excited about.
"To be honest, I've never seen an election where so many people have stuff hidden in closets,'' he said. "It's like we are putting convicts in office. It's more and more, and you don't know who to trust."
In a race largely defined by mudslinging over who is sleazier, neither Meek or Greene appears to have come out ahead. Voters were even — 29 percent for Meek and 28 percent for Greene — when asked who was the more honest man.
What set Greene apart in the poll is that the self-made real estate billionaire is viewed as better understanding Florida's economy and how to fix it. But voters also see him as "more out of touch with ordinary people" and more willing to "say anything to win votes" than Meek.
"The person with the business background has an advantage because the economy is such a crucial, driving issue,'' Clark said. "If Meek were to talk about nothing but the economy for next week . . . he could certainly pull some of that support back."
Meek is more popular in South Florida, the Tampa Bay area and the northern part of the state, while Greene is running much stronger in southwest and Central Florida. Meek has represented parts of Miami-Dade in Congress since 1992, and for eight years before that, in the state Legislature.
Greene's parents moved to Florida decades ago, but he has only lived in the state full time since 2008.
Voters were divided sharply along racial lines. Meek, who would be Florida's first African-American senator if elected, has a 21-point lead among black voters and other non-Hispanic minorities. Greene leads by 17 points among non-Hispanic white voters.
Hispanic voters are split fairly evenly between the two candidates.
Greene has tried to appeal to Jewish voters with mailings that feature a picture of him at his bar mitzvah, but the poll shows Meek ahead among voters who are not Catholic or Protestant.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Beth Reinhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.