TAMPA A large gender gap and a recovering economy are pushing President Barack Obama to a significant lead in Florida over Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, a new Quinnipiac University poll says.
The poll, conducted in the nation’s three largest swing states, found Obama with significant leads over Romney in Florida and Ohio and a lead in Pennsylvania only slightly greater than the error margin.
It also showed Florida Gov. Rick Scott continuing to struggle with low voter approval in Florida.
Florida voters also gave Obama higher disapproval than approval ratings, but by a difference less than the error margin.
The top-line numbers on the general election matchups:
Florida: Obama 49 percent, Romney 42 percent; Obama 50 percent, Santorum 37 percent;
Ohio: Obama 47 percent, Romney 41 percent; Obama 47 percent, Santorum 40 percent;
Pennsylvania: Obama 45 percent, Romney 42 percent; Obama 48 percent, Santorum 41 percent.
The job approval ratings:
Scott: 52 percent disapproval, 36 percent approval;
Obama in Florida: 49 percent disapproval, 47 percent approval.
Obama’s matchups against the Republicans in Florida and the other states were his best showing in a Quinnipiac poll in this election cycle, said pollster Peter Brown. Two months ago, he said, Obama and Romney were in a statistical tie in Ohio and Florida.
Brown said the biggest reason probably is the economy. By nearly identical numbers in each of the three states, 57 percent or 58 percent of respondents said the economy is recovering and 39 percent said it’s not.
Moreover, he said, voters in the three states are far more likely to blame oil companies and oil-producing countries for the recent rise in gasoline prices.
Again by nearly identical numbers in each state, slightly less than one-fifth of the respondents in each state said Obama was to blame for rising gas prices. On the other hand, 55 percent to 60 percent in each state blamed oil producing nations or oil companies.
Female voters drove Obama’s lead.
In Florida, Obama led Romney by 52 percent to 38 percent among women and Romney led 47 percent to 45 percent among men. Obama led Santorum 53 percent to 34 percent among women voters and 46 percent to 39 percent among men.
The March 20-26 poll included interviews with more than 1,200 voters, and 2.8 percentage point error margins, in each state.
It suggests improvement in Obama’s standing with Florida voters since late last year.
In January, a Quinnipiac poll showed Obama and Romney tied at 45 percent each, and polls by Suffolk University, Mason-Dixon Polling & Research and a second Quinnipiac poll showed Romney with small leads.
Rasmussen Research polls in February and this month showed Obama with small leads.
University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith, a specialist in campaigns and elections, discounted the effect of economic improvements on the poll in Florida. "Unemployment is still high and housing values low" in this state, he said. But he said the gender gap is a worrisome problem for Republicans.
"What you’re seeing now that is quite dramatic is the movement of women away from the Republican nominee," he said.
There’s certain to be "tremendous flux" in voter perceptions of the candidates between now and the election, he said, but "the dramatic movement of women away from the Republicans … could be more deep-seated and less likely to reverse."
Romney, he said, appears to be suffering from the trend regardless of whether he’s primarily responsible for it.
"Comments from Rush Limbaugh, statements from other candidates viewed as hostile to the interests of women are moving them away from Republicans," he said.
Scott’s approval ratings hit a low of 29 percent in the Quinnipiac poll in May 2011, just after the close of his first legislative session, and have hovered in the 30s since.
Over the past year, he has made a sustained effort to improve his image, including senior staff changes, a more informal public persona and more cordial relations with the media.
But changing his image is likely to be tough, Smith said.
"A lot of people have pretty fixed views of Rick Scott. A zebra can’t change his stripes no matter how much you paint it white; taking off his tie and greeting the Tally press corps with a friendly smile is not going to change the underlying fundamentals."