Trump, Biden each have 45% support in new Florida poll

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The news cycle is jampacked with polls. But have you ever wondered how polls actually work and what they mean?

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The presidential race is tied in Florida with less than 30 days to go, according to a new Suffolk University/USA TODAY Network poll that shows President Donald Trump’s campaign still highly competitive in a must-win state despite a calamitous stretch.

Trump and Democratic opponent Joe Biden each are supported by 45% of voters in the poll, while 6% of voters still are undecided and the rest are supporting third-party candidates or refused to say who they’re backing.

“You can’t get any closer than a 45/45 split; it really reflects the core support of the respective bases,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

Trump’s campaign sustained 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 has taken 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 said. “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.”

Yet the number of undecided voters in the poll is noteworthy and runs contrary to the view that nearly everyone already 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 said of targeting no party affiliation voters.

Fort Walton Beach mother of three Tabitha Hall, 40, 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,” said Hall, an independent.

Working in Trump’s favor in Florida is the finding that a majority of voters (55%) said they are better off than they were four years ago. Additionally, 49% support a U.S. Senate vote on Amy Coney Barrett, the president’s pick to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, compared to 44% who oppose voting on her nomination.

And while Trump has been heavily criticized for his coronavirus response, 42% of Florida voters rate his efforts to combat the virus as “good” or “excellent” and another 13% say he’s doing a “fair” job, while 45% described his virus response as “poor.”

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden exchange points during their first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool) (Photo: Morry Gash, AP)

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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 said, while adding that 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,” said Lambert, a Zephyrills retiree who voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again.

But St. Petersburg retiree Pauline Ward, 81, said Trump hasn’t taken the virus “seriously enough.”

“I think he’s done everything to make everybody think it’s not a bad thing,” said 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 than COVID-19, according to the poll, although the top issue is “bringing the country together.”

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Trump’s support is overwhelming among voters who prioritize the economy, while Biden’s support is equally strong among those who view COVID-19 as the most important issue.

The poll is in line with other surveys that have shown Biden is doing better with Florida voters over age 65 than Clinton did in 2016, but worse with Hispanic voters. Trump won Florida’s senior vote by 17 percentage points in 2016, but Biden is up by 3 points among these voters in the latest survey.

Yet Biden is up only by four points with Hispanic voters in Florida, a group Clinton won by 27 points.

Among the more troubling aspects of the poll for Trump: 54% of Florida voters believe the country is on the wrong track, and only 24% believe Trump won the first presidential debate, compared with 41% who believe Biden won. 

Overall, though, the survey is one of the better ones for Trump in recent weeks. 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.

Meanwhile, Biden campaigned in South Florida Monday before a town hall event.

Both campaigns were working to get voters registered before Monday’s deadline. A big question is how many felons – who had their voting right’s restored by a 2018 constitutional amendment – 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 also found that restoring voting rights to these individuals continues to be popular, with 67% of voters in support.

But 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 still be unable to vote this year because they have outstanding financial obligations.

Mail voting already has begun in Florida, with 571,872 ballots 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 have led to a big expansion of mail voting in Florida and around the country, 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 said.

The poll of 500 likely Florida voters was conducted between Oct. 1 and Oct. 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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