Just two months ago, Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidate for governor, was leading Gov. Rick Scott by seven points in a Quinnipiac poll. Last March, before Crist announced his candidacy, he led Scott by 16 points in a Quinnipiac poll, and by 12 points in a Public Policy Poll.
The latest Public Policy Poll–a liberal-leaning polling organization based in Raleigh, N.C.–has Crist leading Scott by an insignificant 43 to 41 percent, well inside the 4 percent margin of error. The race between the two front-runners has tightened even though Scott still gets dismal ratings for his job approval, with just 34 percent approving of his performance, and 51 percent disapproving. For an incumbent governor to have a majority of voters disapproving of his performance is usually an insurmountable hurdle for re-election.
And that’s in a poll whose respondents were 41 percent Democrats, 34 percent Republican and 24 percent Independent.
But the dynamics of the Crist-Scott race are different because of Crist’s past as a Republican, then as an Independent, and because of Scott’s willingness and ability to spend whatever it takes to win election–from his own treasury, his campaign’s or taxpayers’. In 2010, Scott spent $75 million of his own to beat Alex Sink despite his past as the CEO of a health care company that had to pay $1.7 billion in fines for fraud.
This year, Scott is planning on spending $100 million that he intends to raise through his Let’s Get To Work re-election committee. (Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who represents Flagler County and is a former Republican Party of Florida chairman, is Scott’s campaign chairman, though the position is largely ceremonial.)
The governor, his eyes on a $1 billion state surplus, has also been proposing a series of state initiatives that would combine large tax cuts with large spending sprees on tourism, infrastructure and the environment in hopes of gaining favor with voters. The proposals have been uncharacteristically liberal for their breadth and cost. But they may also have helped Scott blunt Crist’s appeal.
“Republican voters have really rallied around Rick Scott over the last three months,” Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, said. “His consolidating support from the party base explains most of his gain relative to Charlie Crist since the last time we polled.”
Last year most voters saw Crist favorably. Not so this year. Now, just 36 percent of voters view him favorably, while 46 percent view him unfavorably, a result that can at least partially be attributed to a relentless campaign by the Republican Party to portray Crist as a flip-flopper, and to re-write history from when Crist was governing the state as a Republican. Back then of course, the same Republican Party celebrated Crist for his pragmatism, his immense popular appeal and his working relationship with the GOP-dominated Legislature. These days, the party is itself doing a flip of history by recasting those years as bleak and unemployment-ridden (Crist’s tenure coincided with the Great Recession).
The Public Policy Poll touched on numerous other issues.
Barack Obama’s job approval is at 44 percent, against 48 percent who disapprove, a slight improvement from a 40 percent approval low in November.
Sen. Bill Nelson’s approval rating is 40 percent, against 35 percent who disapprove. Sen. Marco Rubio’s approval is at 43 percent, but his disapproval is at 45 percent. The two senators’ approval rating is almost even with Floridians’ feelings about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare: 40 percent approve, and 49 percent disapprove. Just 35 percent say that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been successful so far, with 52 percent saying it’s been unsuccessful.
With a measure potentially making it to the ballot to legalize medical marijuana, the poll found 65 percent of respondents in favor and just 23 percent opposed. And 47 percent said same-sex marriage should be allowed, against 44 percent saying it shouldn’t be.
With Congress considering whether to continue or cut off federal unemployment benefits for workers whose state unemployment benefits
have ended, as in Florida, but cannot find a job, 67 percent of respondents said Congress should prolong benefits, 27 percent said it should cut them off. There’s movement nationally to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. Almost two-thirds of Floridians (62 percent) support the idea, and 29 percent are opposed.
Only 21 percent of Floridians think guns should be allowed in movie theaters, a likely response to the shooting death of an unarmed man by a retired cop in a Tampa theater earlier this year, after the cop and the man had an argument.
Public Policy Polling surveyed 591 Floridians Jan. 16-21 through automated telephone interviews, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.