The news cycle is jampacked with polls. But have you ever wondered how polls actually work and what they mean?
The presidential race is tied in Florida less than 30 days before the election, according to a Suffolk University/USA TODAY Network poll that shows President Donald Trump’s campaign is still highly competitive in a must-win state despite a calamitous stretch.
Trump and Democratic opponent Joe Biden each is supported by 45% of voters in the poll, while 6% of voters are undecided, and the rest support third-party candidates or refuse to say who they back.
“You can’t get any closer than a 45/45 split; it really reflects the core support of the respective bases,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
Trump’s campaign had a series of setbacks last week, from a New York Times report that the candidate paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 to a widely panned debate performance and Trump’s positive coronavirus test, which took him off the campaign trail and put a spotlight on his virus response.
Despite the tumult, slightly more Florida voters (48%) approve of the president’s job performance than disapprove (47%), according to the poll, which largely was conducted after the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
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“Oftentimes, politics is like mixing cement,” Paleologos says. “In the early stages of a candidate’s life or in the early stages of a campaign, the cement is fluid, but as time goes on, it hardens, and I think you have a hardening of support on both sides.”
The number of undecided voters in the poll runs contrary to the view that nearly everyone has made up their minds about the candidates. In Florida, at least, there appear to be opportunities to persuade voters, many of them independents.
“That’s really a fertile area to do any persuasion. That’s the place to be,” Paleologos says.
Tabitha Hall, 40, a mother of three in Fort Walton Beach, is one of those undecided voters. She leans toward Democrats on issues such as abortion rights but more toward the GOP on fiscal policy.
“I’m one of those voters that’s on the fence because I feel like I need to know about the issues to make a decision, and I kind of put it off until the last minute,” says Hall, an independent.
Working in Trump’s favor, a majority of voters (55%) say they are better off than they were four years ago. Forty-nine percent support a Senate vote on Amy Coney Barrett, the president’s pick to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, compared with 44% who oppose voting on her nomination.
Forty-two percent of Florida voters rate Trump’s efforts to combat the coronavirus as “good” or “excellent,” and 13% say he’s doing a “fair” job; 45% describe his virus response as “poor.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden says President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response has cost lives during a debate Sept. 29 in Cleveland. (Photo: Pool photo by Morry Gash)
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Hall rates Trump’s coronavirus response as “fair.” She doesn’t view the pandemic as a big factor in her vote.
“I hear the criticisms, and I’m kind of like, I don’t know, could it have been done differently or better? I think it’s fair what’s been done so far,” she says, though she’d like to see the president wear a mask in public.
Independent voter David Lambert, 69, rates Trump’s response to the pandemic as “excellent.”
“He shut down the country right away, he’s provided all the medical necessities that they needed,” says Lambert, a Zephyrills retiree who voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again.
St. Petersburg retiree Pauline Ward, 81, says Trump hasn’t taken the virus “seriously enough.”
“I think he’s done everything to make everybody think it’s not a bad thing,” says Ward, a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton and plans to vote for Biden. “Even after he got it, he is ready to put himself in front of everybody even though he’s probably still contagious.”
More voters describe the economy as the most important issue facing the next president, rather than COVID-19, according to the poll. Their top issue is “bringing the country together.”
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Trump’s support is overwhelming among voters who prioritize the economy; Biden’s support is equally strong among those who view COVID-19 as the most important issue.
Trump won Florida voters older than 65 by 17 percentage points in 2016, but Biden is up by 3 points among these voters in the latest survey.
Biden is up by 4 points with Hispanic voters in Florida, a group Clinton won by 27 points in 2016.
Among the more troubling aspects of the poll for Trump: 54% of Florida voters say the country is on the wrong track, and 24% say Trump won the first presidential debate, compared with 41% who say Biden won.
Overall, the survey is one of the better ones for Trump. A New York Times/Siena College poll released over the weekend has Trump losing Florida by five percentage points.
The president almost certainly must win Florida to have a shot at winning enough Electoral College votes to be reelected, but his illness forced him to cancel a rally planned near Orlando last week. His son also canceled campaign events in the state.
Biden campaigned in South Florida on Monday before a town hall event.
Both campaigns worked to get voters registered before Monday’s deadline. A big question is how many felons – who had their voting rights restored by a constitutional amendment in 2018 – registered before the deadline.
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The new survey found that 7% of Florida voters have someone in their household who is a felon and plans on voting for the first time this year. The poll found that restoring voting rights to these individuals is popular with 67% of voters.
Voting rights advocates lost a court challenge seeking to overturn a law passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature that requires felons to pay back all fines, fees and restitution before voting. A large number of felons will be unable to vote this year because they have outstanding financial obligations.
Mail voting has begun in Florida, and 571,872 ballots had been cast as of Monday afternoon, most of those by Democrats. The new survey shows that 50% of Florida Democrats plan to vote by mail this year compared with 21% of Republicans.
Health concerns led to a big expansion of mail voting, but Lambert always votes on Election Day and will do so again. He is not worried about the health implications of voting in person.
“Not one bit. I don’t wear a mask either,” he says.
The poll of 500 likely Florida voters was conducted Oct. 1 to 4. It has a 4.4-percentage-point margin of error. The majority of the interviews – 393 – were conducted after Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
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