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Presidential race in Florida remains tight contest, poll finds

By Marc Caputo, The Miami Herald –

MIAMI — President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are locked in a virtual tie in Florida, according to a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll that indicates the Democrats’ convention buzz and the Republican’s recent troubles haven’t altered the race in this biggest of battleground states.

Obama is drawing 48 percent support to Romney’s 47 percent among likely voters — a lead well within the poll’s 3.5 percent margin of error. Only 4 percent are undecided.

“Despite what some people have tried to claim, this race is still close in Florida,” said Brad Coker, who conducted the Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey. “It’s very much a toss-up.”

Obama has fought Romney to a standstill over who is more trustworthy when it comes to the economy. But 51 percent say they’re not better off than they were four years ago, while 41 percent say they are.

The president is also up by 6 percentage points when it comes to foreign policy — even after the attacks on a Middle East embassy and consulate that left four Americans dead.

But Romney has basically pulled even with Obama over managing Medicare, a traditional Democratic strength.

Obama is winning the Hispanic vote. But Democrats fret his margin might not be enough to counterbalance the white voters who favor Romney by double digits.

Obama, however, could have a crucial edge: the support of independent voters, who often decide elections in swing-state Florida. Independents back the president by 11 percentage points more than Romney. That’s a six-point shift since the last Mason-Dixon poll in July.

“Obama seemed to pick up some independent voters. That’s where Romney slipped a little bit,” Coker said.

Each candidate has strong support from his respective party, although Romney has slightly more Republican backing compared to the percentage of Democrats favoring Obama.

The relatively stronger internal party support could prove pivotal for Romney. If the same proportion of Republicans, Democrats and independents cast ballots in 2012 compared to 2008 — a high watermark for Democrats — Romney could have the edge on Election Day, the poll indicates.

“It’s a turnout game,” Coker said.

Florida Democrats and the Obama campaign have registered about 200,000 new voters this election. Many are likely to vote for Obama. Registered active Florida Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans 44 percent to 39 percent, a 5-point margin mirrored exactly by this latest poll.

In interviews with poll respondents, neither candidate is really loved by his own supporters.

“I don’t think Obama has any backbone,” said Andrew Ianniello, 76, a Democrat from Punta Gorda. “Obama is a wimp. But Romney’s an even bigger wimp when it comes to him trying to pacify the tea party and conservatives.”

A third-party candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson, isn’t drawing much support at all. Johnson, outgunned by the major political parties, has 1 percent.

The neck-and-neck race and the dwindling pool of undecided voters heighten the importance of the presidential debates next month.

The Mason-Dixon poll of 800 likely Florida voters was conducted for The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13 from Sept. 17 to 19.

The survey was taken just as Romney suffered the fallout of a leaked hidden video of the candidate making disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of taxpayers who pay no federal income tax.

Romney described them as “victims” who would vote for Obama and want handouts. He later said the remarks were “off the cuff” and “not elegantly stated.”

The incident came a week after Romney took a hit in a national poll for the way he criticized Obama’s handling of Middle East violence on Sept. 11.

But Florida voters seemed to take it all in stride.

“We had this swirl of coverage over the last couple of weeks, and it doesn’t seem to have made a real impact with average voters,” Coker said. “The talking class and the analysts and the inside-the-Beltway-bubble people all think this stuff is big and important. I guess the voters don’t think it’s all that much important.”

Here’s what they care about: the economy.

And on that point, they’re evenly split.

Asked who’s more trustworthy on the economy, they tied. Romney has made the economic tough times under the president central to his campaign.

“That probably is the one result in here that’s a bit worrisome if I were the Romney camp,” Coker said. “Romney’s got to build a margin on that economy question.”

About 45 percent of likely voters believe the economy in Florida is stable, while 32 percent say it’s improving. A fifth says it’s worsening.

More than two-thirds say Obama bears at least some blame for the shape of the economy; 31 percent say he’s not.

On the president’s overall job performance, voters are almost equally divided. A majority thinks the country’s on the wrong track.

Democrats and independents are more likely than not to believe the economy is improving. Only Republicans are more likely to believe it’s getting worse.

Women are far more likely than men to believe the economy is getting better and are more likely than men to support Obama. Men are more likely to believe the economy is worsening and back Romney in bigger numbers than they back Obama.

Obama’s biggest strength: African-Americans, who back him with more than 90 percent of the vote, and young voters (ages 18-34), who support the president by double digits.

Among young voters, Obama’s support has improved somewhat more than Romney’s since July. The president’s campaign has barnstormed colleges and talked up the need for making college more affordable, while noting Romney might cut federal support.

Seniors, however, seem to favor Romney more than Obama, and seniors are more likely to vote than younger people.

Non-Hispanic white voters also back Romney by a 15-point margin, the poll suggests. That’s significant in a state where they account for two-thirds of the registered voters and tend to cast ballots in disproportionately higher numbers than, say, Hispanic voters, who comprise 14 percent of the active voter rolls.

Obama leads Romney among Hispanic voters by 9 points. But, because of the relatively small sample size of Hispanic voters — two-thirds of whom were polled in Spanish — the lead could fluctuate. Other polls show Obama with about a 20-point edge among Hispanic voters.

Still, many pollsters — including Democrats — say that’s not enough to make up for Obama’s poor showing with non-Hispanic whites.

Obama’s lead among Hispanic voters is smaller in Florida than in other Hispanic-heavy battleground states because of the presence of Cuban-Americans. They tend to vote Republican and account for about 70 percent of the registered Republicans in Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county.

Cuban-Americans comprise about a third of the registered Hispanic voters, but they often vote in disproportionately higher numbers. Puerto Rican voters are more Democratic and are more clustered in Central Florida. There, the Obama campaign is reminding voters in a Spanish-language ad that Romney opposed the nomination of the first Puerto Rican to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

Some Puerto Rican voters, like Javier Carmona, 31, of Oviedo, are Republican. But he said he’s voting against Romney.

“Romney doesn’t have a brain,” Carmona said. “I was in the U.S. Army, and I believe in helping people out and serving my country. Romney doesn’t. He thinks 47 percent of us don’t count.”

On the other end of the Republican spectrum is this from Roberto Perdz, 73, a Miami Cuban-American: “Obama failed. He had four years, and it didn’t do anything positive. Mitt Romney will bring change. He has a plan. Obama doesn’t.”

To gin up the Cuban vote, Romney has released a new Spanish-language ad featuring Florida Sen. Marco Rubio giving a testimonial about his Medicare bonafides. On Saturday, Romney also dispatched his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, to The Versailles restaurant, a focal point of the Cuban exile community. Ryan once favored lifting the Cuban embargo but has now pledged to be tough on the Castro dictatorship.

The selection of Ryan, who had proposed plans that cut back on future Medicare expenditures, also carried risks in senior-heavy Florida.

However, Republicans counteracted criticism of Ryan’s Medicare record by holding up the president’s Affordable Health Care Act. It remains deeply unpopular in Florida because it trimmed future Medicare expenses. Ryan, though, had twice voted to keep intact the very Medicare cuts he now bashes.

About 49 percent trust Obama to keep Medicare financially stable, compared to 47 percent for Romney — a virtual tie.

“It’s the Obamacare factor,” Coker said. “It’s almost the neutralizer with the traditional attack that the Democrats make on Medicare. The Republicans actually have a grenade to throw back at them, whereas in the past they haven’t.”

Because of the vagaries of the Electoral College system, Romney needs to win Florida. If he doesn’t, he’ll lose his bid to unseat Obama, who’s running stronger in swing states like Ohio and Virginia, where other surveys indicate that voters are more sanguine about the economy.

“We’re a toss-up state,” Coker said. “We were a toss-up state last time. We were a toss-up state eight years ago. We were a toss-up state 12 years ago. There’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be a toss-up state now.”

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