A new poll finds Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist in a dead heat and, with more than 10 percent of voters undecided, sets the stage for an already-brutal campaign expected to get uglier over the next seven months.
The poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., shows Scott and Crist, his most likely Democratic rival, knotted at 42 percent apiece. Adrian Wyllie, the Libertarian candidate, polls at 4 percent. But 12 percent of those questioned said they were undecided -- showing that the race is still volatile.
"Florida voters continue to have reservations and mixed views about both presumptive party nominees for governor," Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon, said in a telephone interview Thursday.
The poll did not include former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who is challenging Crist in the Democratic primary.
Scott trails Crist by eight points, 45-37, among Hispanics, a coveted voting bloc that comprises a growing portion of "swing" independents considered critical for a win in November. Scott appointed Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former state representative who is of Cuban descent, as his lieutenant governor, and has come out this week strongly in favor of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students, something pushed by Hispanic lawmakers for years.
Exit polls showed that a majority of Hispanics backed Scott in his initial bid for governor when popular Florida Republican Marco Rubio was on the top of the ticket in the U.S. Senate race, Coker said. Rubio won't be on the November ballot.
"Scott's going to have to appeal to Hispanics without the help of Marco Rubio turning voters out and trying to get them to vote straight Republican. He's going to have a bigger handicap with Hispanics than he did last time. ... Right now, they're just kind of up in the air. They don't know what they're going to do," Coker said.
Crist has a narrow edge among independents, who favor the former governor, 37-35.
But Scott fares slightly more favorably within the GOP than Crist, who was a Republican and an independent before becoming a Democrat, does with his newfound party-mates. Scott gets 79 percent of Republicans to 9 percent for Crist, while Crist wins Democrats 74-12.
Scott leads in the North Florida and Southwest Florida regions -- where Republicans traditionally do well -- and Central Florida. Crist does well in Tampa Bay, his home region, and leads Scott by 21 points in Southeast Florida, a Democratic stronghold.
Scott also leads among men, voters older than 50 and white voters, while Crist has a 10-point lead among female voters and carries African-Americans and younger Floridians.
The poll of 700 likely voters, released exclusively to The News Service of Florida on Thursday, was conducted from April 15-17 and April 21-22. It has an overall margin of error of 3.8 percentage points, though the margin is higher for subgroups.
The survey also showed Scott's favorability jumped to 35 percent, up from 30 percent two years ago.
Coker said Scott is likely gaining ground on Crist and improving his favorability with television ads, including a softer ad released last month in which the former health-care executive talks about growing up in a poor family whose car was repossessed.
The latest survey comes on the same day Scott's "Let's Get to Work" campaign released its sixth TV ad, this one painting Crist as a politician who "ran away" in a failed bid for U.S. Senate instead of seeking a second term as governor in 2010.
"The strategy here is going to be to make people hate the other guy more than me," Coker said.
Democratic campaign consultant Steve Schale, who is advising Crist, downplayed the Mason-Dixon poll results, pointing to a recent conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports poll showing Crist leading Scott by six percentage points.
In 2012, Coker wrongly predicted Mitt Romney would beat President Barack Obama in Florida by seven percentage points. Obama edged out Romney by nearly one percentage point.
"I don't believe that there's a poll that could show Charlie Crist winning women by 10 points and winning Hispanics and winning the Tampa media market that has the race dead even. I just don't believe that's possible," Schale said. "All due respect to Mr. Coker, he also suggested Mitt Romney was going to win Florida by seven points. Here's the thing. It's going to be an incredibly close election. It's Florida. There's nothing about this state that isn't just by nature competitive. I don't know that it's a five-point race or a two-point race or a six-point race. But I think it is clear that this is an outlier by a pollster who was an outlier last time around."
Scott's campaign, though, suggested the poll showed that their message was beginning to break through.
"We are very confident in our campaign to show Charlie Crist's failure as governor in contrast to Governor Scott's record of job creation," said Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who serves as Scott's campaign chairman, in a statement. "We already have around 8 million dollars of ads up on TV with this exact message. Polls will surely go up and down, but we know Floridians want four more years of a governor who cares about them and how they will succeed and get a great job."
Schale rebuffed that idea.
"The reality is that most people in this state have a strong impression of either Rick Scott or Charlie Crist, an impression that's not going to be easily changed by television ads or misleading campaigning or campaigning out of the governor's office or you name it," he said.
Additional information about the poll is available at http://mason-dixon.com/florida/.