Democrat Charlie Crist holds a sizable 53-29 percent lead over Gov. Rick Scott among Hispanic voters, according to a new poll that indicates this fastest growing segment of the electorate doesn't like Republican positions on immigration, Medicaid and the minimum wage.
And despite concerns that Hispanic voters might stay home this election, the survey conducted by the premier Latino Decisions polling firm indicates they could be a force at the polls for Crist just as they were for President Barack Obama in 2012 when he barely won Florida.
"There has been a lot of rumbling from pundits that Latino voters will stay home this year because they are demoralized by the lack of progress on immigration reform," said Loren McArthur, deputy director of civic engagement for National Council of La Raza, a liberal-leaning Hispanic-advocacy group that paid for the survey of 600 registered Hispanic voters.
"When asked whether inaction on immigration means Latinos should turn out or sit home in November," she said, pointing to the poll, "nearly eight times as many Latino voters say turnout is more important than ever this year."
The poll, released as the two major candidates square off Friday in a debate hosted by Spanish-language network Telemundo, is the latest spot of good survey news for Crist.
The Democrat appears to be gaining ground on Scott and edges the Republican in four statewide likely voter surveys released this week. Crist's lead in those general polls, though, is inside the polls' margins of error, meaning the race is pretty much a tie.
The horse-race question aside, the Latino Decisions/La Raza survey bucks some conventional wisdom when it comes to the importance of immigration to Hispanic voters.
At 22 percent, immigration is the second-most important issue behind fixing the economy (24 percent) and it's virtually tied with health care (21 percent). Creating more jobs and handling unemployment ranks fourth at 19 percent. The poll's margin of error: 4 percentage points.
Part of the reason immigration isn't such a high concern for Florida Hispanics is that the two largest groups, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, aren't as affected by the issue. Cubans get a special pathway to citizenship if they land on U.S. soil and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
But Hispanics are still minorities in Florida, comprising 14 percent of the rolls. They tend to be poorer, less-insured and more eligible for Medicaid than non-Hispanic whites. More than one-third of Medicaid eligible residents are Hispanic in Florida, a state with one of the nation's highest overall uninsured rates.
A third of Hispanics polled said either they or a family member had been uninsured in the past year and about half of respondents said they knew someone who is sick and lacks health insurance.
Scott initially called for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare but backed off amid Republican pushback. Crist, who once criticized Obamacare as a Republican, now backs it as a Democrat and has made Medicaid expansion a major campaign issue.
If fully expanded, Medicaid would cover as many as 764,000 more Floridians — including 200,000 Hispanics — with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the cost. When those numbers were cited to poll respondents, 78 percent said Medicaid should be expanded; 17 percent said it shouldn't. The poll, however, didn't ask respondents about a concern of Medicaid-expansion opponents, such as increased eventual costs to state taxpayers or burdening an already strained system.
By 79-16 percent, Hispanics said the state should pass a law that removes a five-year waiting period to give 25,000 children who are lawful residents subsidized health insurance. Also, 66 percent of Hispanic voters said they'd be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Medicaid expansion compared to 17 percent who said they'd be less likely.
The poll shows 69 percent would support a governor trying to use his executive authority to pass Medicaid expansion if the Legislature fails to act. Only 27 percent opposed it.
Health care aside, Crist and Scott also differ on raising the minimum wage. Scott, who once said the idea made him "cringe," refuses to talk about it now. Crist vowed to fight for it, which Hispanic voters favor by 64-15 percent.
In 2013, Scott vetoed a popular bill that sailed through the Legislature that also gave the undocumented the ability to apply for driver's licenses. That measure was supported 64-32 percent in the poll.
Scott, who campaigned for an Arizona-style immigration crackdown law in 2010, did little about it after he won office. And he reversed his previous opposition this election year and signed a law allowing illegal immigrant kids who graduate from Florida high schools to receive in-state college tuition rates. Crist once opposed such legislation and now supports it.
Scott this year picked the state's first Hispanic lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Cuban-American who was Miami-Dade's property appraiser. Crist chose his own Miami-Dade pick for a running mate: Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-American who was chair of the county's Democratic Party.
Though the poll indicates Hispanics are jazzed about voting, the 2010 elections showed they were less likely to vote in a midterm compared to non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.
The most reliable Hispanic voters: Republicans, who tend to be of Cuban descent. Exit polls indicate Scott either won or came close to winning the Hispanic vote in 2010. But in 2012, Hispanics roared back and sided with Obama over Mitt Romney by 60-39 percent in exit polls and 58-40 percent in a Latino Decisions poll at the time.
Unlike in 2010, Scott has made unprecedented outreach efforts to Hispanic voters, launching his first Spanish-language TV ad in April.
Despite Democratic gains in 2012, Hispanic voters and immigrant-rights activists have become increasingly disillusioned with President Obama, especially after he backed off a plan to halt or slow deportations. But Hispanic voters are still more likely to blame Republicans in the House for scuttling immigration reform.
Asked who deserves more blame, 42 percent said House Republicans, 32 percent said Obama and 18 percent said they shouldered equal blame.
Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view Obama favorably, and 40 percent say Democrats are doing a good job with Hispanic outreach while only 23 percent say that of Republicans.
"Republicans haven't done any real bridge-building," said Latino Decisions pollster Sylvia Manzano. "And on many important issues, there's just distance between what Latino voters would prefer and what Scott's positions are."