Gov. Charlie Crist holds an early lead as an independent candidate in the U.S. Senate race, but his edge is a "proverbial house of cards," according to a new poll, because support from Democratic and black voters is unlikely to hold up through the Nov. 2 election.
The Mason-Dixon poll released Thursday found Crist receiving 38 percent of the vote, compared to 32 percent for the likely Republican nominee, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, and 19 percent for the leading Democratic contender, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami. Eleven percent are undecided.
More than half of Crist's supporters are Democrats, who overwhelmingly approve of his defection from the GOP and recent veto of a controversial teacher tenure bill. Against the lesser-known U.S. representative from Miami, who is black, Crist is favored by 19 percent of black voters and 48 percent of Democrats, according to the survey. Meek wins support from 68 percent of black voters and 36 percent of Democrats.
"It is very questionable whether or not these party and race numbers can hold up over the next six months unless the national Democratic Party and its leaders (including President Barack Obama) throw Meek under the bus," said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker. ''His strength among Democrats is likely a result of the fact that Meek is not known to 40 percent of state voters."
As an independent candidate, Crist will lack the fundraising and campaign volunteer networks built into the political party system.
Among Meek's Democratic rivals, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre received support from 4 percent of the voters, while the newest candidate in the race, real estate tycoon Jeff Greene, got 2 percent.
The poll of 625 likely voters conducted between Monday and Wednesday has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Among independent voters, 55 percent favor Crist while 19 percent favor Rubio; this advantage could be short-lived, according to the poll.
"Even if Crist holds this support and makes some additional gains, this will not offset the likely loss of support among Democrats he will suffer as Meek increases his name recognition," Coker said. "There is also no guarantee that these nonaffiliated voters will stay with Crist over the long haul, as some of this support could be the result of temporary enthusiasm generated by his party switch."
The survey pointed to only a small 4 percentage point bump in voters with a favorable view of Crist since his party switch one week ago, despite a deluge of local and national publicity. His favorable rating is at 41 percent, while 31 percent of voters have a negative view of the governor.
In contrast, both favorable and unfavorable opinions of Rubio are on the rise as more voters get to know him. Rubio, who is Cuban-American, received support from 64 percent of Hispanic voters surveyed.
If there was any doubt about Crist's waning support among Republicans, the poll shows Rubio leading 70 to 18 percent.
"Crist's chances of gaining any additional support from GOP voters appear bleak in the wake of his abandonment of the party," Coker said.
Crist is most popular in his home turf of Tampa Bay, while Rubio dominates the Republican strongholds in North and Southwest Florida. Meek's strongest support is at home in Southeast Florida, but he still lags behind Crist in the area.