TALLAHASSEE — The anti-incumbent winds sweeping the country are kicking up a storm in Florida, where two super-rich political outsiders are threatening to knock off two veteran officeholders running for governor and U.S. Senate.
A new Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters in the Aug. 24 primary released Thursday shows Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene leading U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami in the Democratic Senate primary by 10 percentage points. It's the first survey that shows Greene ahead.
The poll also confirmed front-runner status for Naples corporate executive Rick Scott in the Republican contest for governor, with an 11 percentage point advantage over Attorney General Bill McCollum.
Both political newcomers have relied on a simple formula to best their rivals: Spend millions on television ads and watch your poll numbers rise. Greene has spent more than $8 million in ads, while Meek only recently bought ad time. Scott has poured an estimated $30 million into his race, doubling that of McCollum's campaign.
"Money matters. You can go from nobody knowing you to becoming a front-runner if you spend enough," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"That's not to say it's only money," Brown added. "The messages that Scott and Greene have been able to send to voters through record television ad spending have been effective."
But Brown cautions that "anything can happen'' leading up to the Aug. 24 primary. Voters in both parties haven't completely made up their minds. And many don't know for whom they'll vote.
That makes the next month crucial, as the ad buys hit fever pitch, the fliers begin stuffing mail boxes and the campaigns aggressively start banking absentee and early votes. Early voting begins Aug. 9.
Meek's campaign notes that the poll was conducted earlier this week — before the Miami congressman was able to advertise. In a written statement, the campaign noted that Greene was once a Republican and had made a fortune betting on the housing market crash that harmed so many Floridians.
Greene's campaign issued its own statement about the poll, crowing about how ''Floridians are looking for an outsider." It also called Meek corrupt and deceptive.
The poll is a good snapshot of what's happening in the Democratic-heavy retirement condos of South Florida, where an increasing number of activists appear to be backing Greene.
Palm cards — the easy-to-use vote-sheet endorsements handed out by influential condo leaders — are starting to trickle out. At the top of the card approved by Marvin Manning, president of the Democratic club at Century Village in Boca Raton, is Greene.
Records show Greene only became a Democrat in 2008, but has been sending mailers to the heavily Jewish retirement communities that note his experience living in Israel and teaching Hebrew school.
"The function of the primary is to select a team, and in looking at the polling, Meek is always at the bottom of the list," Manning said. "Greene came from nowhere and is in contention. We feel he makes a stronger candidate for the ticket."
But, in a coup for Meek, he will lead the palm card at Century Village near West Palm Beach — where Greene's mother lives. She has appeared in Greene's ads.
Meek trails Greene, 33-23 percent, the poll shows. In Quinnipiac's last poll, June 10, Meek was edging Greene 29-27. More than a third of likely Democratic voters are undecided. And a majority, 54 percent, say they might change their minds.
A plurality of voters say Meek is more consistently liberal and shares their values. Also, Democrats say they'd prefer a candidate with experience instead of a government outsider.
The poll shows that Greene's support among Democrats is far softer than Scott's among Republicans, Brown said. Scott leads McCollum 43-32 percent.
McCollum's decline in the polls began months ago when Scott unleashed his television ads. At the time, the attorney general was cruising toward the Republican nomination before Scott blindsided him and started bashing McCollum as a career politician. That's a particularly effective attack in a Republican race, the poll shows.
By 54-28, Republican voters say they'd prefer an outsider to someone with experience. But it gets worse for McCollum.
By double-digit margins, the poll shows, Republicans believe Scott will do a better job than McCollum in rebuilding Florida's economy, and they believe Scott is more conservative and reflects their values better than McCollum does.
Also, an equal number of voters have favorable and unfavorable views of McCollum: 34 percent. In Quinnipiac's last poll, only 19 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable view of McCollum and 41 percent had a favorable view of him. And more than a quarter of the GOP electorate says they haven't heard enough about him, a problem for a candidate who has been on a statewide ballot in three previous elections.
More voters hold a favorable view of Scott than an unfavorable view. But that's likely to change. The Republican establishment in the state Capitol backs McCollum and is dumping millions into a handful of special election committees that are starting to bash Scott for, among other things, leading a hospital company that ultimately paid a record $1.7 billion fraud fine.
The poll shows Republican voters aren't ready to crown Scott. Nearly a quarter of the likely electorate is undecided; 43 percent say they might change their minds; and 55 percent say their minds are made up.
"We have a long way to go and there are a lot of undecideds in that poll itself," McCollum said, pointing to a recent poll showing he trails Scott by only 4 percentage points.
"We are down a little bit to Mr. Scott," he said.
Though McCollum claims his ads against Scott haven't been negative, Scott's spokeswoman, Jen Baker, said the attorney general and his allies have spent "eight weeks and $8 million in negative ads." But, she said, this is the second "independent poll'' showing Scott leading the field.
Because this poll only concerns the primary, it doesn't have details on independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican Marco Rubio in the Senate race, which will be decided in the Nov. 2 general election. Nor does the poll include questions about Democrat Alex Sink or independent Bud Chiles in the general-election governor's race.
Most polls show Scott ahead of McCollum, who trails his rival by 6 percentage points in McCollum's own internal polling. Other polls show Meek ahead of Greene. The Quinnipiac poll has an error margin of 3.6 percentage points and surveyed 760 Republican voters and 782 Democratic voters.
Times/Herald staff writers Beth Reinhard and John Frank contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.