Independent voters are more likely to side with Republicans than with Democrats on issues facing Floridians, according to a poll conducted for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and Bay News 9.
Whether it's opposing a so-called public option for government-run health insurance, supporting oil drilling or a general feeling that the nation is on the wrong track, independents are proving a key ally for conservatives.
The more conservative sentiment is a reversal from a year ago, when Times/Herald/Bay News 9 polls showed that independents leaned more Democratic.
Chief reasons for the public-opinion turnaround, according to poll respondents and pollsters: the rough economy and President Barack Obama's difficulty in quickly living up to his campaign slogan: hope and change.
"The Obama administration made a lot of promises that it can't execute on right now," said Carlton Hughes, a 31-year-old independent voter and poll respondent from Punta Gorda.
"With the economy the way it is, we're shelling out a lot of money on a federal basis on programs that we're not sure will work. Who has been stimulated by this stimulus bill?"
But don't call Hughes a conservative. He says he's socially liberal but fiscally conservative, and he says there's no room for voters like him in major political parties.
"You can call it conservative sentiment," he said, "but we're really trying to find the middle. And right now, things aren't in the middle."
The state Republican Party can't completely rejoice, either. Independent sentiment may be with them but Republican numbers are declining.
After an election year in which Democrats walloped the GOP in signing up new voters, the Republican Party of Florida is bleeding voters. Since the November 2008 election, nearly 58,000 registered Republicans have either left the party or been removed from the voter rolls because they haven't voted in years. Democrats have lost only 20,000 voters.
At the same time, the number of no-party-affiliation voters has increased by 20,000.
Overall, Democrats make up 42 percent of the 11.2 million registered voters in Florida, Republicans are 36 percent and those with no party affiliation account for 19 percent of the electorate.
Independent voters were the most likely to give Republican Gov. Charlie Crist a negative rating, with 67 percent saying Crist is doing a fair-to-poor job. That compares to 51 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Democrats who viewed Crist negatively.
By a 49-30 percentage point spread, independents said they opposed Crist's decision in February to stump with Obama in support of the stimulus package. A majority of Democrats supported it.
Independents gave Obama's job performance a lukewarm review: About 41 percent said he was doing an excellent or good job while 57 percent said the president was doing a fair-to-poor job. Republicans were much more negative about the president. Democrats generally gave Obama positive marks.
But last year, in Times/Herald/Bay News 9 polls taken in October and September, independents were more likely to side with Democrats in how they perceived the direction of the state or the job performance of President George W. Bush.
This year, because of independents, Floridians in the poll backed offshore oil drilling, 54-40 percent. Only Democrats opposed it. Independents were also crucial in Floridians overall opposing a "public option'' health plan, 47-40 percent. Only Democrats supported it.
Sentiments like that are troubling for Democrats in the nation's largest swing state, which can decide which party controls the White House. Without independents, a party or a candidate can't win Florida.
"They are the key to anyone's political fortunes — Obama's last year and Crist's next year," said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican whose firm, the Polling Co., helped conduct the Oct. 25-28 survey of 600 registered voters with Schroth, Eldon and Associates. It has an overall error margin of 4 percentage points.
"If you just looked at independents," Conway said, "you see them more nervous and more pessimistic about the state of the country, the state of the state and certainly the leadership from both the governor and the president."
Right now, the Democrats' leading contender for governor, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, hasn't been hurt by the shift in independent sentiment. She and Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum are virtually tied in independent support, according to the poll. A quarter of the electorate is undecided, though.
Conway's Democratic colleague, Tom Eldon, said it wasn't a big surprise to see a shift to the right among independents. Public opinion often moves against the president's party during mid-term elections and, Eldon said, disaffected conservatives are likely leaving the Republican Party and joining the ranks of independents in big numbers.
"Florida is the purplest of states. It's always going to be 50-50," Eldon said, referring to the mix of "red'' Republican voters and "blue'' Democratic voters. "But there's always a concern when the third leg of the American triad starts to move away from you."
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.