TALLAHASSEE – Despite dumping record-breaking dollars into their maverick political campaigns, self-financed candidates Rick Scott and Jeff Greene trail their opponents heading into Tuesday's primary, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll released Saturday.
Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum now leads Scott 45-36 percent in the survey of likely Republican voters, reversing numbers that had him trailing the former hospital chain executive.
Democrat Kendrick Meek, the congressman from Miami, has opened up a 42-30 percent lead over Greene, the independently wealthy real estate mogul. Fresh off visits from President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton this week, Meek shows strong support among the most reliable Democrats: African American voters, said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker.
"Wealth helps, but it can only get you so far," Coker said. "I still think a wealthy businessperson can win in Florida, but they have to have had strong ties to their local communities and charities."
He said that neither Scott nor Greene brought those characteristics, relied too much on television and were shrouded by questions over the way they became wealthy. Scott was CEO of the hospital chain Columbia/HCA before it was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud. Greene made hundreds of millions of dollars from the nationwide housing bust.
"Both appeared to have profited heavily upon the misery of others and/or at the expense of taxpayers," Coker said in his written analysis. "Greene's situation was further complicated by some questionable personal behavior."
McCollum's recovery appears to have been helped by a heavy ad campaign mounted in the last two weeka by Republican-led political committees aiding his campaign. Although Scott has spent $38.9 million of his own fortune to fund a summer-long barrage of television ads, it doesn't appear to be enough to sustain him in the final days of the primary. Only 15 percent of the voters in the gubernatorial race are still undecided.
McCollum's surge, however, has not been without injury, Coker said. The percent of voters who think favorably of McCollum has risen to 43, the poll shows, nearly matching the 46 percent he had in May. But Scott's negative ads have hurt: McCollum's unfavorable rating has climbed from 4 percent in March to its current 32 percent.
McCollum's lead, however, extends to every area of the state, with the exception of Scott's home region in Southwest Florida. His strongest showing is in Southeast Florida, where he holds a strong advantage among Hispanic, mostly Cuban, Republican voters in Miami-Dade County.
Republican women are also helping McCollum, supporting him over Scott by 47-33 percent compared to just 44-39 percent among GOP men.
Coker said that Scott and Greene erred by dependence on television ads. He noted that Scott was hurt by his decision to duck debates and party forums, and by his failure to appear before newspaper editorial boards to tell his story.
"Personal impressions and character are very important for a 'fresh face' outsider to be successful in traditionally low-turnout primaries, where those who vote are more knowledgeable and politically active," he said.
Using his deep pockets in an unprecedented ad war, Scott may have over-saturated the television markets, Coker said.
When he first launched his ad campaign in May, Scott's favorable rating shot to 28 percent "almost overnight," he said. Four months later, more voters view Scott negatively than positively – 40 percent to 33 percent.
Greene, who has dumped $23 million into his own campaign, has outspent Meek four to one. Meek, who had been trailing in several polls over the summer, can attribute his surge to the African-American Democrats, who will cast 20-25 percent of the vote in the primary and the ground organizations of unions and other Democratic Party constituency groups, Coker said.
Greene holds a 37-32 percent lead over Meek among white voters, but the Miami congressman draws 72 percent of the black vote "and is likely to build that even further by primary day," Coker said.
The Mason-Dixon poll surveyed 500 likely Democratic voters and 500 likely Republican voters. It was conducted by telephone, Aug. 17-19, and has a margin of error of +/- 4.5 percentage points.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com