Florida voters want offshore oil drilling, oppose a so-called "public option'' for health insurance and overwhelmingly support a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe, according to a new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
The common link among the three issues: the economy.
A full 44 percent of Florida voters said their personal financial situation worsened in the past year. Just 7 percent said it improved, and 48 percent said it stayed the same in a state racked by record unemployment, home foreclosures and budget deficits. By double-digit margins, Florida voters also believe the state and nation are on the wrong track.
With numbers like that, oil drilling is no longer a killer in Florida politics. And even the religious right supports a Seminole gaming deal — favored by 59 percent of voters overall — to bolster the state budget.
Health care ranked as the top concern, with 39 percent of voters saying it was most important to them. The No. 2 issue: unemployment, at 19 percent.
Yet 47 percent of voters said they opposed a "public option," which congressional Democrats have proposed, saying it will increase coverage and lower skyrocketing insurance costs. Just 40 percent of Florida voters said they favored a public option.
"Voters are looking at ... how health care reform impacts their personal pocketbooks," said pollster Kellyanne Conway. "It's not just about a tug at the heartstrings. It's not about providing insurance for the uninsured or improving the system. ... Most Floridians are looking at health care reform through an economic prism."
Conway points out that voters who could be expected to support the public option — those whose personal finances have worsened — are more likely to oppose the government-run plan.
The telephone survey of 600 registered voters was conducted Oct. 25-28 for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and Bay News 9. The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon and Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats, and the Polling Co., which mainly works with Republicans.
Democratic voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the public option, 62-24 percent. But Republicans opposed it by an even bigger spread, 74-16 percent. Independent voters, who ultimately decide elections in Florida, tended to side with Republicans in opposing the public option, 46-38 percent.
Rick Nelson, a landscaper with no party affiliation from Deltona, echoed Republicans in saying that he wanted the government to stay out of health care as much as possible.
"We've got enough welfare going on in this country," Nelson said. "All this is, is another type of welfare."
The poll also shows there's a demographic and geographic divide on the issues.
White voters opposed the public option the most. Minority voters — blacks and Hispanics — tend to lack insurance more than whites and favored the public option by double-digit margins.
Voters younger than 35 were the only age group to favor the public option, which was also supported more by people who had children in the home.
Democratic-heavy South Florida — which has a high rate of uninsured — was the only region where voters favored a public option, by a 54-37 percent margin. Voters from Republican-heavy Southwest Florida opposed the public option by the biggest margin, 30-50 percent.
On the issue of drilling between 3 and 10 miles offshore, voters were more likely to favor it if they lived farther away from a coastline that could be affected by a potential spill. Support was strongest in Central Florida: 60 percent for drilling, 34 percent against. It was lowest in the Tampa Bay area, with 45 percent favoring it and 46 percent against. The region was the only in Florida where a plurality of voters wanted no drilling.
"This is an issue that is completely based on region," pollster Tom Eldon said. "It's very popular in the north; it's not that popular in the south. ... The big question about drilling is, is drilling still one of the third rails in Florida politics? And in many parts of the state, it's not. Up in the Panhandle, in Orlando, drill all you want. But you get into Tampa and Hillsborough and Pinellas and Manatee (counties), the numbers are upside down."
Overall, 54 percent of voters supported drilling off Florida's coast and 40 percent opposed it. Republicans overwhelmingly supported drilling, independents backed it by a double-digit margin while Democrats were opposed.
As legislators consider this spring whether to allow oil drilling to help bail out the state's budget, Eldon noted: "This is going to be voted on by members who have to go back to their districts and actually defend their votes."
Voters like retiree Douglas Jones, a 67-year-old Republican from Valrico, are paying close attention. A longtime small-business man in Key West, he served as Monroe County commissioner from 1988 to 1992, when Keys residents banded together against oil drilling with the slogan "No Valdez in the Keys'' — a reference to the 1989 Exxon supertanker spill.
"It's just too close to us," Jones said. "An oil spill on those beaches would just devastate us."
But voters like Democrat Guilda Bryant say they're less worried about the environment and more concerned with the cost of fuel and the fact that the United States buys oil from countries like Iran and Venezuela.
"We need more oil independence. We need to stop buying it from people who don't like us," said Bryant, 74, from Fort Lauderdale. "Going to the beach is a pleasure. But we need oil to exist."
Bryant is an anomaly. A black Democrat, she voted against Barack Obama and opposes the public option.
Unlike whites and Hispanics, a majority of black voters — 61 percent — say the United States is moving in the right direction, an indication, pollsters say, that they're riding the high of seeing the first black president in the White House. Black voters also are the most likely to believe Florida is moving in the right direction or to say that their personal economic situation has remained the same or improved.
Bryant, however, doesn't share that sentiment.
"I don't see things getting any better. People are still losing jobs. Foreclosures are still going on," she said. "The stock market they say is doing better, but I don't have money in the stock market. And when I go into the grocery store, the prices are terrible."
Black voters are less likely than others to support Gov. Charlie Crist's plan to strike a gambling deal with the Seminoles. Still, a majority of black voters support the proposal, which would inject at least $150 million into the education system annually.
An agreement, though, is on hold now that Republican legislative leaders declared an impasse in negotiations. But Crist's positions — in favor of gaming and drilling and opposing a public option for health care — mirror the majority of voters in the poll.
Meantime, Florida voters want the gaming deal because they want the money. Support for the proposal spans every demographic and geographic area. Even voters in the Christian conservative Panhandle want the Legislature to approve the gaming deal, with only a third opposed.
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.