Democrat Alex Sink has a slight lead over Rick Scott in two new governor's race polls that show half of likely voters have a negative impression of her Republican rival.
Sink leads Scott by 3 percentage points in a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey. And she's up by 4 percentage points in the Quinnipiac University poll released earlier Thursday.
Both leads aren't solid and are essentially within the polls' error margins. Also, the Quinnipiac survey found that 9 percent of those who name a candidate say they could change their mind by Nov. 2.
That makes the race too close to call, putting pressure on both candidates and their political parties to turn out their base voters. Sink could have more of a challenge motivating Democrats, who are less enthusiastic about voting this year.
Both polls anticipate a disproportionately higher number of Republican voters casting ballots this year, but Sink leads anyway thanks to the support of independent voters, who decide close Florida elections. Also, registered Democrats greatly outnumber registered Republicans in Florida.
"A very large Republican turnout margin seems to be the only shot Scott has to win this race," Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker said in an analysis.
Coker's poll shows Sink with a 51-37 advantage over Scott among independent voters. Quinnipiac's independent split: 42 percent for Sink and 37 percent for Scott. Both polls show that more Republicans will vote for Sink when compared to the Democrats who will vote for Scott.
On the campaign trail, Scott was confident he would be victorious on Tuesday.
"If you look at the likely voters, and the absentee ballots and early voting, we're doing really well. We're going to win," said Scott.
If early and absentee votes are factored in, GOP ballots cast so far outnumber Democrats by more than 230,000.
While Sink is contending with an enthusiasm gap. Scott needs to overcome a favorability gap.
The Mason-Dixon poll shows 52 percent of voters view him negatively, and only 30 view him positively. In the Quinnipiac poll, 50 percent of likely voters view Scott negatively and 34 percent view him positively.
"When half of voters don't like you, you have a real problem," said Coker, attributing Scott's troubles to the record Medicare fraud in his business background and a bruising Republican primary.
Both polls show that Sink is viewed more positively than negatively by voters.
Quinnipiac completed its survey Sunday and Mason-Dixon finished its poll Wednesday — at the height of a controversy over Sink receiving a smart phone Droid message, by way of a makeup artist, during a commercial break in Monday's final gubernatorial debate. The two candidates had agreed not to allow such messages during the debate, which was broadcast live on CNN across the country.
The Droid phone gaffe quickly went viral and has since consumed the campaign for governor.
Sink and Scott, both inexperienced campaigners, have been walking on eggshells for months to avoid an embarrassing gaffe that could damage their campaigns. Despite Sink's caution, the debate flap forced her to immediately remove Brian May, an unpaid political consultant, from the campaign. Meanwhile, Scott's campaign pounced on the issue.
Sink has spent the past two days responding to the flap after debate moderator John King of CNN concluded that Sink knew what she was being sent. It took Sink's campaign two days to persuade the media — by unwinding the video frame by frame — that she did not realize why she was being handed the phone.
But new video and audio evidence of the discussion with the makeup artist shows that Sink likely realized the message broke the rules — though she didn't quickly say anything about it, thereby allowing Scott to call her out in the nationally televised debate.
Pollster say the flap probably won't change the race, but if the election comes down to just a few votes, any issue could make the difference.
In the Mason-Dixon poll of 625 likely voters, Sink leads Scott 46-43; 4 percent say they'll vote for another candidate and 7 percent are undecided. Error margin: 4 percentage points.
In the Quinnipiac poll of 784 likely voters, Sink leads Scott 45-41; 2 percent say they'll vote for someone else and 11 percent are undecided. Error margin: 3.5 percent percentage points.
Quinnipiac also surveyed the Senate race and showed little change.
Republican Marco Rubio is maintaining a steady lead against challengers, Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running independent of any party, and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Rubio is favored by 42 percent of voters, compared to Crist's 35 percent and Meek's 15 percent.
The real drama is in the governor's race. The Quinnipiac survey shows that Sink has marginally improved her standing, having led by only 1 percentage point earlier this month.
The new survey indicates Sink has a lock on the women vote, said pollster Peter A. Brown.
The poll shows 46 percent of women favor Sink while 38 percent favor Scott, while Scott has a slight 45-44 percent edge among men.
"Given that Ms. Sink would become Florida's first female governor, the lack of a larger gender gap is perhaps surprising," said Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "She has some momentum, but anything can happen in the final days before Election Day."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.