TALLAHASSEE — Lawton "Bud" Chiles and his no-party campaign was supposed to be the spoiler in this year's race for governor.
Political observers thought he would be the Ralph Nader of Florida politics, siphoning Democratic votes and handing the election to a Republican.
But that's not quite the case, if you believe several recent opinion surveys. They show Chiles, the son of a popular former governor and U.S. senator, with nearly equal support from independents and voters from both parties.
"Bud's not a spoiler for the Democratic candidate," said his brother Ed Chiles, a restaurateur who lives on Anna Maria Island. "He's pulling very significant numbers from both sides without spending any money."
• Chiles garners 12 percent in a November matchup against Republican Bill McCollum and Democrat Alex Sink, according to an Aug. 6-10 survey by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Times/Herald. He would get 14 percent if Rick Scott is the GOP nominee.
• Chiles gets 17 percent if he faces Scott and Sink, according to an Aug. 9-11 poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. He would capture 13 percent against McCollum and Sink.
He's pulling from all camps, such as in the Mason-Dixon matchup with Scott and Sink, where Chiles drew 17 percent of the Democrats, 17 percent of Republicans and 16 percent of independent voters.
So, what's behind the numbers?
"It's residual name recognition, support from his father," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon. "He's getting a little from each side, people who liked his father and for whatever reason aren't really turned on by the others."
Both Chiles and Sink could benefit from Republican voters disenchanted by the bloody primary battle between McCollum and Scott. Combined, the two candidates have spent $50 million in advance of Tuesday's election, much of it for attack ads.
"I honestly think it's going to be hard to put this Humpty Dumpty back together in the Republican Party," Chiles said. "The intensity of the fight — those wounds will take a long time to heal."
Chiles said his message of cleaning up Tallahassee's special interest culture is resonating with both liberals and conservatives.
Take Jim McKay, the 65-year-old retired school administrator from St. Lucie County. McKay recently moved to Florida after living abroad for 30 years, and said he doesn't remember much about the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. But McKay, a registered independent, said he's particularly happy with Chiles' self-imposed $250 limit on campaign donations.
"I personally think way too much money is spent on campaigns," he said. "It's just becoming insane. It's more about how much money you can raise as opposed to what you stand for."
Chiles often notes that he's within shouting distance of his rivals, who have access to untold millions, while he's operating on a shoestring budget. But his poll numbers, while commendable for a cash-strapped candidate, could be fleeting.
Dave Beattie, a Democratic pollster who has done work for Sink, said support for independent and third-party candidates tends to decline as Election Day nears. Most voters, he argues, want to go with a winner.
"There are people who are willing to consider someone who's an independent," Beattie said. "But as it gets closer to the end of the election, they end up making the decision to have a vote that's going to matter, as opposed to making a protest vote."
But 2010 could be different.
In a year when more voters are grumpy about politics as usual, Chiles might simply benefit from the word "independent" or "no-party" after his name.
In that he is not alone, sharing the ballot with Gov. Charlie Crist, the breakaway Republican-turned independent who is also drawing support from both sides of the aisle. Crist's prominence and power as governor have offered voters an example of what a politician without party allegiance could be like.
"There's a dynamic going on, and I don't know that anybody fully understands it," said Buddy MacKay, who was the lieutenant governor and close adviser to the late Gov. Chiles. "But this is a pretty tempting time to run against both parties."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.