Despite being a former Republican, Charlie Crist's standing in his new party is so strong that he could wallop longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by 13 percentage points in a theoretical primary for governor, a new poll shows.
The survey, conducted by Republican Gov. Rick Scott's pollster, also indicates Crist is still formidable in a general election and leads the incumbent by 4 percentage points among likely voters.
Scott fares better against Nelson, who has a mere 2-point lead over the Republican in a general election matchup, according to the poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted last month by Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates.
The survey, which deeply undercuts the talking points of some Nelson backers who say he's a better candidate than Crist, is among the first to match up the two in a Democratic primary.
The results: Crist beats Nelson 45-32 percent among the 380 registered Democrats polled. Former state Sen. Nan Rich receives 4 percent. Nineteen percent remain undecided.
While the spread appears large, the fact that the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat is popular in his new party doesn't surprise political experts who say the former governor is closely identified with President Barack Obama.
"Gov. Crist was obviously very helpful to the 2012 re-elect. He did whatever we asked and was very helpful giving strategic advice," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, told the Miami Herald in a interview prior to the release of the poll.
"He gave a very important Democratic National Convention speech," Messina said. "It framed the election in an important way. And he was very important to the fact that Barack Obama won Florida."
Messina declined to comment on the wisdom of Nelson hopping in the governor's race.
A small band of Nelson supporters and advisers, including some who despise Crist, have urged the senator to keep his options open. Nelson has, though he notes he has no "plans" to run.
Some Nelson supporters, however, question the validity of the survey because it was conducted by Scott's pollster.
"Scott would rather face Crist than Nelson," said mega-Democratic donor Stephen Bittel, who likes Rich and Crist but is remaining neutral in the Democratic primary for now, unless Nelson hops in.
Bittel, though, acknowledged that Crist is probably better-known because he was governor, a more high-profile position.
Also, Crist was a high-profile figure for Obama, starting with the then-Republican governor's 2009 decision to back the president's stimulus plan, which helped weaken Crist in the GOP. Crist fled the party in 2010 only to lose to Marco Rubio in the general election for United States senator.
Where Crist had a high-profile role at the national Democratic convention, Nelson made no speeches and didn't stay for the entire event.
In a June survey by Quinnipiac University, both Nelson and Crist beat Scott by the same margin: 10 points. Quinnipiac stopped polling Nelson in the governor's race because he kept expressing a lack of interest.
A subsequent November poll by Quinnipiac showed Scott narrowing the gap with Crist to 7 points. Crist's number stayed the same, 47 percent, but Scott moved up to 40 percent support largely because Republicans began backing him more strongly.
Also, the poll showed, independents had started shifting away from all Democrats who might run in Florida, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, because Obama's approval ratings were plummeting amid the disastrous rollout of Obamacare.
The Quinnipiac polls were of registered voters. The Fabrizio McLaughlin survey overall polled likely voters, who tend to be more Republican leaning in Florida, where Democrats underperform in gubernatorial elections.
The Fabrizio poll was taken at the end of November, at the height of Obama and Obamacare's unpopularity.
Obama was viewed favorably by 44 percent and unfavorable by 51 percent: Crist's favorable-unfavorable numbers: 47-43 percent. Scott's favorables were either not polled or released, but his job approval ratings are close to split: 46 percent disapprove and 48 percent approve.
Crist beats Scott 49-45 percent in the poll, while Nelson edges him by a lesser among, 48-46 percent.
The bulk of the poll was reserved for matching Crist against Scott because Nelson is not expected to be a candidate.
The polls illustrate some stark contrast in styles between Scott and Crist. Scott has made job creation his central campaign premise since 2010 and the economy has improved in Florida, and nationwide.
Crist was governor during the nationwide economic downturn, which hit Florida particularly hard. Throughout, though, Crist remained likable to a broad section of the electorate.
One key demographic for Democrats, African-Americans, have supported Crist more and more over the years, said Obama's campaign manager, Messina.
"The African-American population of Florida saw Charlie Crist fighting for their president — and doing it in a very bipartisan and eloquent way," Messina said. "It was clear: you could see the governor's numbers continue to increase and I think that's why he's the favorite in a Democratic primary."