Romney and Obama tied in Florida; Rubio more popular than either of them

A new Mason-Dixon poll of likely voters, conducted for the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, shows President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney virtually tied in Florida, 46-45.

As the Tampa Bay Times noted, “Dig into the numbers, and what’s most surprising is that Obama is at all competitive with Romney.”  Florida voters disapprove of the President’s job performance, 50-46.  54 percent said the country was on the “wrong track,” while only 35 percent said Obama’s policies had helped the economy.  Fully 50 percent wanted to see ObamaCare repealed.

Some of the even poll split appeared due to Florida voters having ambivalent feelings about Mitt Romney.  While they generally had a favorable view of Romney’s record, there is some evidence that Obama’s heavy negative advertising in the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas, attacking Romney’s private sector career, have been able to hold the challenger’s numbers down.  Obama has a big lead in heavily-populated southeast Florida, including the Miami area, while Romney is equally far ahead in the more conservative northern regions of the state, and they’re basically tied in central Florida.

The most interesting, and quirky, results of the poll concern Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has been frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Romney.  Rubio’s direct effect on the presidential contest appears minimal, as he simply reversed the numbers to 46-45 in favor of Romney – a 2 percent poll shift, in a survey that has a 3.5 percent margin of error.

However, Rubio had by far the highest positive ratings of any politician named in the survey, with his 51 percent approval putting him well ahead of both Obama (44 percent) and Romney (37 percent.)  Further, Rubio’s negative number was a tiny 19 percent, compared to 41 and 33 for Obama and Romney, respectively.

It’s interesting to compare those soaring approval numbers for Rubio with the marginal impact he seems to have on the presidential contest as a running mate.  Some of this could be due to a general feeling among Florida voters that Rubio will not be Romney’s vice presidential choice, because other names have been more widely discussed lately, so they view the question as too hypothetical to shift their position on the 2012 election.  Ambivalent feelings about Romney may also lead voters to wonder just how much of an effect Rubio would have upon his Administration; until they have fully taken Romney’s measure, they’re not quite sure how Rubio would fit in.

But Rubio has a great deal to offer the Romney ticket beyond likability, and roots in a crucial battleground state.  He’s a dynamic speaker, able to passionately convey conservative principles without alienating independent voters, as his low negative numbers suggest.  (As much as they already like him, many Florida voters have yet to see just how potent Rubio can be when he addresses a national audience about the largest issues.)  He’s popular with the Tea Party, and would go a long way toward making the Romney campaign more appealing to strongly conservative voters.

And Rubio has no small degree of appeal to Democrats.  One Democrat voter quoted by the Tampa Bay Times said that even though she still expects to vote in favor of re-electing the President, she sees Rubio as “an everyday person. He knows what it’s like to raise a family. He knows what it’s like to be a minority in the system. And I just think that he’s not a toe-the-line conservative.  If he is the vice presidential running mate of Mitt Romney, I will have to think long and hard about continuing to vote for Obama.”

That’s the kind of long and hard thinking Mitt Romney should want persuadable Democrat voters to do.  Marco Rubio’s ability to inspire it should keep him on Romney’s short list for vice presidential candidates.