Brace yourselves for another nail-biter presidential election in Florida.
A new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll finds Barack Obama and Mitt Romney essentially tied in America's biggest battleground state, with 46 percent of likely Florida voters supporting the president, 45 percent backing the former Massachusetts governor, and 2 percent behind Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Only 7 percent are undecided.
"A coin toss," Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker said. "Typical Florida."
Adding Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to the Romney ticket would only marginally help Romney in must-win Florida. A Romney-Rubio ticket leads Obama-Joe Biden 46 percent to 45 percent in Florida.
Dig into the numbers, and what's most surprising is that Obama is at all competitive with Romney:
• 54 percent of likely Florida voters say the country is on the "wrong track" with Obama at the helm.
• Only 35 percent believe his policies have improved the economy, while 41 percent say they have made it worse.
• 46 percent of voters approve of the president's job performance, while 50 percent disapprove.
• 52 percent oppose the health care overhaul — Obama's signature achievement recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — and 50 percent of Florida voters want to see it repealed.
"I own a small business, and my husband and I are doing fine. We're okay, but the future of this economy worries us a lot," said Miami businesswoman Doris Del Toro, 52, a Cuban-American independent who voted for Obama four years ago and is undecided this year. "I'm just not happy with what Obama has done. He's moved way too far to the left. He spent too much time on health care when the economy should have been his priority."
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November general election — was conducted July 9-11 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
The bad news for Romney? It's virtually impossible for him to win the presidency without Florida's 29 electoral votes, and the poll shows he has lots of work to do in the Sunshine State over the next four months. Polls throughout the year have consistently shown a tight race in Florida, though the January Mason-Dixon poll found Romney leading Obama by 4 percentage points.
In the current poll, crucial independent voters prefer Obama to Romney, 46 percent to 41 percent. While Romney leads comfortably among men in Florida, Obama has a 14-point lead among women.
Nor is Romney's business background — the centerpiece of his campaign — overwhelmingly positive to Florida voters.
Forty-seven percent said his business background gives him the skills to better manage the government and improve the economy. But 38 percent agreed with the statement that "he is more concerned with making money and his practices in many instances have unnecessarily cost people their jobs in order to earn profits."
The Obama campaign and its allies have run ads in Florida attacking Romney's record as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital, and Romney late this week responded by airing ads in Florida blasting Obama for misleading attacks on that Bain record.
Yolonda Sultan of Tampa, a retired human resources manager and Democrat, said she has taken notice of the anti-Bain ads.
"If it's the truth, it's like wow. When I heard some of the things that he supposedly has done, it's amazing that he thinks he can bankrupt those companies and he can make all that money for himself and run a country that way," she said.
Florida voters have a more favorable than negative view of Romney's record, but Coker said the Democratic TV spots still appear to be taking a toll on Romney's image.
"For him to make that the centerpiece of his campaign, particularly the business background, I think he's got to make that gap (between favorable and unfavorable views) bigger over time," Coker said.
Janelle Jenkins, a 34-year-old Miami Democrat who works in financial services, is not especially bothered by Romney's business career, but said he appears out of touch with ordinary Americans.
"I don't agree with his policies, especially his position on Planned Parenthood. His tax plan, I also don't agree with," she said, suggesting that Romney appears to be offering little to middle-class or lower-class voters.
Romney's net worth is estimated at more than $200 million. Forty-six percent of Florida voters said that wealth is a sign of success that can inspire people, while 39 percent said it makes him out of touch with average people.
The multimillion dollar TV ad wars have been concentrated in the Tampa Bay and Orlando media markets, and the poll underscores why. Obama leads Romney by 24 points in southeast Florida, Romney leads by 21 in conservative north Florida, and the two are essentially tied in Tampa Bay and the central Florida area stretching from Daytona Beach and Melbourne across the state to Citrus County.
Among the politicians included in the poll, Rubio is far and away the most popular, with 51 percent having a favorable view of him and only 19 percent viewing him unfavorably. That compares to Obama, who is viewed favorably by 44 percent and unfavorably by 41 percent, and Romney, viewed favorably by 37 percent and unfavorably by 33 percent.
Port Orange retiree Helen Ahern, a Democrat, expects to vote for Obama but is a Rubio fan.
"He is an everyday person. He knows what it's like to raise a family. He knows what it's like to be a minority in the system. And I just think that he's not a toe-the-line conservative," said Ahern. "If he is the vice presidential running mate of Mitt Romney, I will have to think long and hard about continuing to vote for Obama."
Still, the poll does little to bolster the case for Rubio being a strong political pick for Romney, who has said the first-term senator is under serious consideration.
Adding Rubio to the ticket cuts Obama's lead among Florida Hispanic voters only to 44 percent for Romney and 43 percent for Obama. (Without considering Rubio, Obama leads among Hispanic voters, 49 percent to 42 percent.)
But overall the contest remains essentially tied with or without Rubio as the vice presidential nominee.
"It's questionable whether he can deliver the state," Coker said. "If he doesn't really help much in Florida, what benefit is he going be anywhere else?"
Times/Herald staff writers Katie Sanders and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.