It's Florida, after all, so what would you expect?
After a constant stream of Sunshine State visits by President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, after many millions spent on TV ads, and even after a Republican National Convention in Tampa, Obama and Romney are essentially tied in America's ultimate battleground state.
A new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll finds 48 percent of likely Florida voters backing Obama, 47 percent supporting Romney, 1 percent with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and just 4 percent undecided.
"It's still very much a toss-up. It's a turnout game," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research.
The needle has barely budged since the last Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll in July showed Obama leading 46 percent to 45 percent, though Obama's lead with independents grew 6 percentage points while the number of undecided voters dropped 3 points.
The good news for Romney? Fifty-two percent of Florida voters say the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 43 percent say it's on the right track.
What's more, Romney's recent spate of negative publicity, including the release of a secret recording of him suggesting that the 47 percent of voters backing Obama are dependent on government and view themselves as victims, appears to have done little or no damage to the Republican nominee in Florida.
"We've had this swirl of coverage over the last couple of weeks, and it doesn't seem to have made a real impact with average voters," said Coker, who led the poll last week just as Romney's 47 percent comment dominated the news. "The talking class and the analysts, and the inside the beltway bubble people all think this stuff is big and important, and the voters don't think it's all that important."
Romney's comment about people dependent on government certainly didn't bother Lake City resident Dale Varnes, 52.
"He was preaching the truth, he knows that Obama has those people on his side and he's going to get them automatically because he's giving them what they want," said Varnes, who is disabled.
The phone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November election — was conducted Sept. 17-19 for the Times, Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll, which included respondents using landlines and cellphones, was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
The bad news for Romney? It's close to impossible for him to win the presidency Nov. 6 without Florida's 29 electoral votes. And contrary to widespread early predictions that Florida would lean Republican by this point, the poll underscores how much work Romney still has to do here in the final six weeks while still trying to gain ground in other battleground states.
Most troubling for the former venture capitalist and Massachusetts governor, his central argument — that he's best equipped to turn around the economy — is falling short. Florida voters are evenly divided on whether they trust Romney or Obama more to improve the economy, with independent voters giving Obama the edge.
"That probably is the one number that is the most worrisome if I were in the Romney camp," Coker said.
Mary Ann Krueger, a registered Republican and retired office supply store owner in Sebastian, said it's Romney's background that makes her think he wouldn't do much to help small businesses like the one she used to own.
"Romney doesn't have a clue as to what it's like to struggle in life," said Krueger, 74. "He doesn't have a background in small business."
More ominous signs for Romney: He trails Obama, 49 percent to 45 percent, in Tampa Bay, the battleground region that typically decides statewide elections, and he trails Obama by 11 percentage points statewide among independent voters.
Overall, 47 percent approve of Obama's job performance and 45 percent disapprove. Forty-six percent have a favorable impression of Obama and 43 percent have an unfavorable one, similar to Romney who is viewed favorably by 43 percent and unfavorably by 39 percent.
Romney has an 11-point advantage over Obama among men, and Obama has a 15-point advantage among women. Romney leads among white voters, 55 percent to 40 percent, while 95 percent of African-Americans back the president. Obama leads Romney by 9 points among Florida's coveted Hispanic voters, less than his margin of victory four years ago, though those questions have a higher margin of error.
The survey points to a Florida electorate as polarized as ever, with 87 percent of Democrats behind Obama and 92 percent of Republicans backing Romney.
Nor do many minds appear to be changing. The July Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll also found Obama leading by 1 percentage point, though he has slightly strengthened his advantage among independents since then, when more Floridians disapproved of the president's job performance than approved.
In the new poll, voters younger than 35 overwhelmingly support the president, voters between 35 and 50 are closely divided, and Romney leads by 6 percentage points among those 65 and older.
Democrats had hoped to chip away at the GOP's typical advantage among seniors by highlighting Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's proposal to change Medicare's guaranteed benefit for younger people. The poll shows little sign that has worked.
Asked whether they trust Obama or Romney more to keep Medicare financially stable, 49 percent of voters said Obama and 47 percent Romney. Voters 50 and older said they trusted Obama more, but not significantly.
"I don't think that Medicare is as big a wedge issue as it has been," Coker said, noting that the unpopular Affordable Care Act has helped change the political dynamic. "The health care law is very unpopular and it's almost a neutralizer with the traditional attack the Democrats make on Medicare."
Jean Auris, a registered independent and retired pharmacy technician in Homosassa, however, said she resents the criticism she hears of entitlement programs and beneficiaries.
"I take Social Security and I take Medicare, those are social programs. And I can't understand these older people that turn against it. They don't want to admit that they're a middle-class poorer person,'' said Auris, one of those surveyed. "I think that sometimes people look at Fox News and Fox News tells them that they're better than that. You're not better than that, you're a poor middle-class person. Come to the reality."
Florida voters have a bleak view of the economy — 51 percent say they are worse off today than four years ago, and 41 percent say better off — but don't necessarily blame Obama. One in three says Obama deserves most or all of the blame for the current economic situation, about equal to the number of voters who say he deserves none of the blame.
Scott Hudson, 47, owns an electrical engineering firm in Tallahassee and says Romney's business experience makes him a better candidate.
"He's made money, he's made decisions that have changed the financial outlook of companies," Hudson said. "Obama hasn't done anything with the economy. After four years of not seeing anything drastically change with the economy, I can't support Obama."
While a majority of voters see the country heading on the wrong track, they are not entirely pessimistic about Florida. One in three sees the state's economy getting better, one in five sees it getting worse, and 45 percent say it seems to be staying about the same.
The economy has been the dominant issue in the campaign to date, though recent turbulence in the Middle East, including attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya and Egypt, have elevated foreign policy as an issue. Obama has an advantage there, with 51 percent of voters saying they trust the president more and 45 percent saying Romney.
Times staff writers Katie Sanders and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]