There is news both good and a little bad for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in what is setting up to be the most closely watched political race in the nation. Here's the exclusive inside story. A poll, conducted Oct. 2-5 for the Internet news service InsiderAdvantage by the Marketing Workshop, shows Gov. Bush with 47 percent of likely voters to Democrat Bill McBride's 42 percent. Eleven percent was undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.
The good news for Bush is that previous InsiderAdvantage polls have proved to be highly accurate in other hotly contested Southern political races. Plus, the InsiderAdvantage poll raises serious questions about a separate poll commissioned by several Florida newspapers and a Jacksonville TV station last month. That survey suggested the race was 49 percent for Bush and 48 percent for McBride. But those numbers, while entertaining, defy the entire history of political polling by suggesting that only 3 percent of the Florida electorate were undecided with less than six weeks to go in the election.
The InsiderAdvantage poll seems to be a more realistic follow-up to recent surveys taken by other nationally recognized pollsters, all of which indicate that the race is gradually tightening. Each of those polls shows a double-digit percentage of undecided voters. That better reflects the race at the time of their surveys.
Interestingly, another InsiderAdvantage poll, released Aug. 28, was the first major survey to show Democrat McBride in a statistical dead heat with former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for the Democratic nomination. McBride went on to upset Reno by a razor-thin margin. In that same poll, a separate hypothetical ballot test between Bush and all three Democratic candidates showed Bush leading McBride 46 percent to 33 percent. Even then, Bush was under the critical 50 percent mark against McBride.
The good news for Bush is that he has managed to stay close to 50 percent, despite a barrage of critical stories in the press. Personal family difficulties, which have no place in politics but are often exploited, have been followed with a series of reports on Bush verbal faux pas.
The governor has been accused of telling a group of legislators that he has "devious plans" to circumvent a proposed constitutional amendment to cap school classroom sizes should it pass in November. Bush has also been accused of telling the legislators that he had "juicy details" concerning the sexual orientation of a missing Miami girl's caretakers.
The InsiderAdvantage poll gave little indication that the Bush remarks, which were reportedly made in private and without Bush's knowledge of a reporter's presence, have had any significant impact on his favorable or unfavorable ratings. However, InsiderAdvantage is tracking the race with daily follow-up surveys, and they will likely provide a better indication of any damage the remarks may have brought about.
Meanwhile, McBride is edging closer to a statistical dead heat with Bush. McBride's strength, with no great surprise, comes from the southeastern section of the state, around Miami. But the poll indicates that nearly 40 percent of the voters still do not know enough about the Tampa attorney to form an opinion of him. And in areas of the state such as the Panhandle and northeast Florida's "First Coast," Bush is leading McBride by significant margins.
The good news for McBride is that there are still many voters who don't know who he is, thus providing him the potential to rise further in the polls as those voters start to focus on the race and heavier sums of interest-group money come into play.
Plus, a double-digit percentage of African-Americans say they are still undecided. Most of those will probably fall into McBride's column. More good news for Bush is that there appears to be less of a gender gap in this race than is often the case in many high-profile partisan contests. The two candidates are virtually even in their support from women voters, an electoral bloc that often polls more heavily for Democrats.
The new InsiderAdvantage poll offers a reasonable picture of what each candidate must do in order to have a chance of winning. For the challenger, it's an issue of becoming better known with a clearer message. McBride is generally perceived by observers as being far too vague on policy positions, and weak on his understanding of state government.
Bush's hopes boil down to his campaign's ability to communicate McBride's weaknesses to the many voters who may not know McBride, but who will grow more familiar with him by Election Day. Bush cannot afford to let McBride reach higher name identification without having increased the percentage of voters who view the Democrat unfavorably. Yes, it appears the race may become even before it's over. Factoring in the poll's margin of error, it is nearly so now.
But wishful McBride thinking aside, it is not the 49-48 race some earlier polls have suggested. From daily tracking polls and other analysis, expect updates on this race, which holds national implications as to who will control Florida's controversial elections process in 2004, and whether the Bush name can remain magical going into the presidential election season.
Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
He can be reached at www.InsiderAdvantage.com.
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