Times poll: All tied up in Florida governor's race between Rick Scott, Charlie Crist

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, left, and Democrat Charlie Crist, right, are locked in a dead heat race for governor in the final weeks of the campaign. [AP photos]
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, left, and Democrat Charlie Crist, right, are locked in a dead heat race for governor in the final weeks of the campaign. [AP photos]
Published Oct. 15, 2014

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist are locked in a dead heat race for governor in the final weeks of the campaign, and a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/UF Bob Graham Center poll shows Florida voters think very little of either candidate.

The exclusive poll finds 40 percent of likely voters supporting Crist, 40 percent backing Scott, and 6 percent for Libertarian nominee Adrian Wyllie.

Independent voters have broken toward Crist since a September poll from the Times' partners showed Scott leading by 5 percentage points and voters' already negative impressions of the governor have grown even worse.

"I don't like either candidate," said George Welch, a 50-year-old Republican in Dade City, who wishes he had a different Republican choice. "I'm going to vote for Scott because I won't vote for Charlie. … Part of the reason is that he changes parties and partly that he supports Obama."

Both sides have spent tens of millions of dollars on TV attack ads, and the poll underscores the toll those have taken.

Only 38 percent of voters said Scott "understands the problems of people like me." Former Gov. Crist is campaigning as a champion for ordinary Floridians, but only 45 percent of voters said he understands their problems.

"I don't trust the guy," said 76-year-old retiree Kent Thall of Fruitland Park, a Republican who voted for Crist when he was, too. "He's on TV saying all kinds of things like he's a good guy, but he changes positions depending on who he's talking to."

Jerry Schreiber, a 75-year-old retired lawyer from Miami, said he appreciated how then-Republican-Crist extended early voting hours in 2008 to alleviate long lines.

"Our present governor has done little to support the average person," Schreiber said, noting how Scott cut education funding early in his administration and did little to expand access to health insurance for working families. "Quite frankly, I don't like the guy."

Nearly six in 10 voters said the phrase "honest and ethical" describes neither Scott nor Crist. More than one in three Democrats and Republicans felt that way even about their own party's nominee.

"These negative ratings are pretty profound for a gubernatorial contest and make it difficult, I think, for Gov. Scott to run too far ahead of his opponent. Crist's negatives are almost as strong but those of the governor are particularly pronounced," said David Colburn, director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

The telephone survey of 781 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November election — was conducted Oct. 7-12 for the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and News 13 of Orlando by the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service and Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The poll, which included respondents using landlines and cellphones, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. Results were weighted by age, party registration and media market, thus allowing the results to mirror the distribution in the Florida Voter File.

Forty-four percent of the likely voters surveyed approved of Scott's handling of his job, while 49 percent disapprove — including 57 percent of independent voters. In contrast, 48 percent said they approved of Crist's performance when he was the Republican governor — including six in 10 Democrats, one-third of Republicans, and 47 percent of independents — while 41 percent disapproved.

Scott's approval/disapproval ratings are upside-down despite two-thirds of voters saying a governor can do a lot about Florida's economy and a strong plurality seeing the economy improving. Forty-seven percent of voters said the state's economy is improving, 27 percent said it is not yet recovering but will soon, and a quarter said it will be a long time before the economy recovers.

The Times poll mirrors another one released by CNN on Tuesday, showing Scott and Crist tied at 44 percent support each and Wyllie winning 9 percent.

The tied race comes as mail-in voting already is under way, the TV airwaves are filled with negative ads, and tonight Crist and Scott face off at Broward College for their first high-profile statewide televised debate.

"If I were Charlie Crist's campaign manager I would tell him to be more proactive questioning whether or not we're in a recovery," said Christopher McCarty, director of the UF Survey Research Center and director of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, noting that economists differ on the strength of the economy.

Crist also could score points by continuing to stress his support for raising the minimum wage in Florida, which Scott opposes.

Fifty-seven percent of voters support raising the minimum wage, including three out of four Democrats and more than two-thirds of independents. Only 27 percent oppose raising it, including 45 percent of Republicans.

"And if I were Scott or Scott's people I would highlight Crist's connections to President Obama," said Colburn of the Graham Center. "It's clear that Obama's ratings in Florida are falling and he's become a real burden to Democratic candidates."

Only 38 percent of voters approve of Obama's performance and 56 percent disapprove. Fewer than one in 10 Republicans approve of the president's handling of his job, while independent voters are closely divided, with 47 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving.

When asked whether the phrase "provides leadership" describes Crist, 43 percent said it does, while 50 percent said the phrase describes Scott.

The poll shows Crist leading narrowly in the battleground region of Tampa Bay and among Hispanic voters, and handily among voters 25 to 34 years old. In all those voter groups, however, the poll's margin of error increases.

Scott leads slightly among men and Crist among women. The poll shows independent voters breaking 47 percent for Crist and 26 percent for Scott, though Scott was peeling off more Democrats than Crist was with Republicans.

Wyllie appears to be having little impact on the race, either as a third alternative or as a none-of-the-above choice. The poll shows him winning about as many Democrats as Republicans.

"I suspect it would be different if there were a Democratic candidate who had always been a Democrat," said McCarty.

Scott campaigned for governor four years ago as a hard-liner on immigration but has since softened his rhetoric, if not his positions. The poll suggests that was a wise move politically.

Asked whether they support federal immigration reform including a pathway to citizenship, 57 percent of likely voters said they do and less than one in three oppose it. Republicans were most closely divided, with 45 percent supporting it and 42 percent opposing.

The poll shows an unpredictable, too-tight-to-call race, but that's not how the voters see it.

Nearly half of those surveyed expect Scott to win a second term, while one in three think Crist will win. While three out of four Republicans expect Scott to win, only 55 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents think Crist will.

Times staff writers Katie Mettler and Weston Phippen contributed to this report.