Barack Obama's lackluster debate performance last week has dramatically altered the presidential race in Florida, with Mitt Romney opening up a decisive 7 percentage point lead, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll.
The survey conducted this week found 51 percent of likely Florida voters supporting Romney, 44 percent backing Obama and 4 percent undecided. That's a major shift from a month ago when the same poll showed Obama leading 48 percent to 47 percent — and a direct result of what Obama himself called a "bad night" at the first debate.
The debate prompted 5 percent of previously undecided voters and 2 percent of Obama backers to move to Romney. Another 2 percent of Obama supporters said they are now undecided because of the debate.
"There's no question in my mind that debate made people stand up and pay attention, and it really wiped away any questions people had about Romney, whether they were undecided or soft for Obama," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll for the Times and its media partners.
Across the board, from who is better suited to improve the economy, to who will protect Medicare, to looking out for the middle-class, to handling foreign policy, likely Florida voters now favor the former Massachusetts governor over the president.
"It's a very big shift since the debate, and where the shifts are taking place are very, very interesting because they are the types of shifts you see in Florida when something starts to break one way or another," said Coker, likening it to when Ronald Reagan shot past Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Take Tampa Bay, the battleground region that invariably mirrors statewide results. A month ago, Obama had a 4 percentage point lead in Tampa Bay. This week, Romney led by 8 percent, 52 to 44. In Central Florida, Romney now leads by 6 points.
Likewise, Obama's lead among likely women voters in Florida fell from 15 percentage points last month to just 2 points, 49 percent for Obama and 47 percent for Romney.
Obama's once 11 point lead among likely independent voters had cascaded into a 13 point lead for Romney this week, 52 percent to 39 percent.
The poll found little change among Florida youngest voters, 18-34, or oldest voters, 65 and up. But those ages 35 to 64, who had been evenly divided a month ago, moved dramatically to the Republican nominee. Romney now has a nine point lead among voters age 35-49 and a 15 point lead among those between 50 and 64.
Especially ominous were the numbers for Hispanic voters, a demographic where the Obama campaign is banking on an advantage of at least 15 percentage points. The poll showed 44 percent of likely Hispanic voters favoring Obama and 46 for Romney, though the margin of error is higher with that smaller group of voters.
"We ran away from other countries in search of a more traditional United States," said Coral Gables resident Mary Gonzalez, who immigrated from Venezuela. "I think with the current president, the United States moves to (the left). And with Romney, I believe he can return the United States to its traditional course."
The bottom line? Obama appears to be in serious trouble in America's biggest battleground state. He has two debates and 25 days to turn it around, but the poll points to a race that had been close and stable for months shifting significantly toward the Republican nominee.
"You cant say it's over, but if nothing changes — no major gaffes, no big stories that come out of nowhere, relatively equal debate performances where nobody really outdoes the other — I think Florida is going to fall into the Romney column," Coker said. "I think once voters fall off of Obama it's going to be harder for Obama to bring them em back."
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November election — was conducted Oct. 8-10 for the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Central Florida News 13. The poll, which included respondents using land-lines and cell phones, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Not all the polling news was bleak for Obama Thursday. An Oct. 7-9 NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Florida poll found significantly different results, with Obama leading Romney among likely Florida voters 48 percent to 47 percent, and well ahead of Romney among women. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
A couple differences between the Marist poll and Mason-Dixon: Mason-Dixon, which has been polling in Florida for 28 years, uses a survey sample based on people's voter actual registration to match the electorate in Florida, while Marist uses a sample based on whether people say they consider themselves a Republican, Democrat or independent. About 20 percent of the likely voters in the Marist poll were Hispanic, while 13 percent were Hispanic in the Mason-Dixon poll, more in line with the Florida voting patterns. Marist had Obama leading among Hispanics 47 percent to 45 percent.
The average of recent Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, without the latest Times poll included, shows a dead even race, 47.5 percent for Romney and 47.5 percent for Obama.
The Times poll "is just not rooted in reality," senior Obama adviser David Plouffe said Thursday. "We got 57 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit (polls) last time. We think we'll probably push 60 or above this time."
Plouffe told the Times the Obama campaign believes it leads in Florida by a percentage point or two and that it's floor of support in the state is at least 47 percent: "It's impossible for us to be at 44 in Florida."
But even fans of Obama are shaking their heads about his debate last week.
North Port resident Virginia Leonard, 92 is a registered Republican who voted for McCain four years ago, but is firmly in Obama's camp this time. Still, she wondered if Obama had been drugged he was so lethargic in the debate.
Democrat Dora Williams, a 71-year-old St. Petersburg retiree, also supports Obama but was taken aback by the debate.
"I was like, 'Ooh, why didn't he speak up?' But he was caught by surprise so I understand that," she said. "When somebody is lying to your face, you can be caught off guard."
Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson appears to be a non-factor in Florida, with just 1 percent backing him or any other third party candidate.
Florida voters were closely divided on the president's job performance last month, but this week the poll found 54 percent disapprove of his performance and 44 percent approve. Forty five percent have a favorable view of Obama and 49 percent an unfavorable view, while 50 percent have a favorable view of Romney and only 38 percent an unfavorable view.
Fifty four percent see the country heading on the wrong track and 41 percent say it's on the right track. Forty four percent say they are better off today than four years ago and 50 percent said they're not.
"This man, Obama, has done little, but he has done something. Also keep in mind that the previous president left the country in bad shape, and the current president has not had enough time to fix things. We have to give him more time to fix things right," said Lorenzo Ruiz, 84, of Miami.
But on key questions Romney has the advantage:
• Who do you trust more to improve the economy? Romney 50 percent, Obama 44 percent.
• Who do you trust more on foreign policy? Romney 49 percent, Obama 46 percent.
• Who do you trust more to look out for the middle class? Romney 50 percent, Obama 47 percent.
• Who do you consider more trustworthy to lead the nation? Romney 51 percent, Obama 46 percent.
• Whose plans are more likely to do more long-term harm to Medicare? Obama 54 percent, Romney 40 percent.
"I think Medicare as we know it will cease to exist because its not sustainable for the future. We do need to have change in the way it's handled. Medicare and Social Security are both going to have to change," said Ron Govin, a 72-year-old Republican from Temple Terrace, a Romney supporter who watched the debate with interest.
"I thought Romney presented some pretty defendable decisions that indicated what he would do. Contrary to that, I thought the president was almost like he wasn't there in his response. Almost like it was kind of new to him," Govin said.
Times/Herald staff writers Brittany Alana Davis, Tia Mitchell and Al Chardy contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com.