Independent voters favor Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Connie Mack over his Democratic opponent Sen. Bill Nelson though Nelson leads the race overall, according to a newly released Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers/WPTV NewsChannel 5 poll.
Mack narrowed the overall margin from 45 percent to 41 percent, and had strong support among independent voters across the state. About 41 percent of those who supported Mack said they were independent voters, while 37 percent of independent voters said they would support Nelson. ( View all results here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/110876524 )
"If you're a sitting incumbent, you want higher numbers," said Casey Klofstad, a political-science professor at the University of Miami. "It's a statistical dead heat, obviously."
Susan Auld, chairwoman of the Martin County Republican Executive Committee, said she's not surprised the Scripps poll results show more independent voters favoring Mack.
"People are realizing how critical the Senate is to addressing the issues. As we know ... they haven't passed a budget for two years," she said. "So they're looking at this in the larger scheme of things: what do we want for our country? Do we want someone who's going to go along with Obama's debt building, and rationing health care?"
Florida's independent voters, Auld said, are carefully pondering Mack's policy positions.
"I think that's what you're seeing, people are starting to focus on the big issues," she said. "And Connie Mack is going to be part of a team addressing them along with (Gov. Mitt) Romney."
The poll of 800 likely voters by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, following Wednesday evening's first and only Senate debate. The poll was commissioned by E.W. Scripps television stations in West Palm Beach and Tampa, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and the Naples Daily News. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent points.
"The only poll that counts, of course, is on Election Day," said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Nelson campaign. "Meanwhile, we've always known this was going to be a close race. That's the nature of Florida politics today."
Celeste Bush, chairwoman of the St. Lucie County Democratic Executive Committee scoffed at the idea of Mack leading Nelson in any poll.
"All the other polls show Nelson way ahead," she said Monday. "And no poll that's out there puts him at such a disadvantage with independents."
Bush said she expects voters to return Nelson to the Senate.
"He has been a stalwart champion for all the people of Florida across the partisan divide, so I just don't see Mack taking that much from him at all," she said. "He's just done too much and he's been too good to Floridians for people to deny him another run for Senate if he wanted it."
A spokesman for the Mack campaign didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tom Lockwood, chairman of the Indian River County Republican Executive Committee, echoed Auld's assessment of Mack's support among independent voters.
"I know it's been touted as a very close race and perhaps we're seeing a little different trend with independents this voting cycle," he said. "I think that's true with the presidential election as well."
Mack's slight edge with independents, he said, might be because of his performance during last week's televised debate against Nelson.
"I have to say I was pleasantly surprised because I wasn't really sure how well Mack would do against a seasoned Nelson," Lockwood said. "I was very impressed with him."
A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling just days earlier showed Nelson with an eight-point lead over Mack, with 45 percent of 791 likely voters saying they would vote for Nelson and 37 percent saying they would vote for Mack. Eighteen percent of voters polled in the Oct. 12-14 Public Policy Polling survey said they were undecided.
Days later, the number of undecided voters dropped to 14 percent, but Klofstad said he still thought it was quite high for this late in the contest.
Peter Bergerson, a political-science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero, said many Floridians might not be paying attention to the Senate race this year.
"One of the things that has happened is the presidential race in Florida has sucked all of the political oxygen out," Bergerson said. "That leaves the Nelson-Mack race as the undercard, and not a lot of people have been focused on it."
To win, Bergerson said, both candidates are going to make sure their base gets out and votes on election day. They also are going to have to reach out to persuadable voters, something both campaigns are hoping statewide campaign swings will accomplish.
Mack is on the second leg of his Freedom Tour, while Nelson is continuing his Florida First tour. Both men are hitting locations across the state where they aren't as well known, and are campaigning heavily with their party's presidential candidates. Mack drew a crowd Sunday during a rally at Tradition
in Port St. Lucie, with his father, Connie Mack III, his mother Priscilla, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani by his side.
The Naples Daily News contributed to this story.