Gov. Rick Scott's voter approval rating hit a historically rare low of 29 percent in a new poll released Wednesday, raising questions about whether his unpopularity could affect Republicans in the 2012 elections.
The Quinnipiac University survey also showed strong voter disapproval of the budget just passed by the Florida Legislature, which slashed education and social services to avoid raising taxes; and it showed a majority dissatisfied with the direction of the state.
"What should concern Republicans is whether he's going to be a drag on the ticket in 2012," said political scientist Dan Smith, head of the University of Florida's political campaigning program, who's politically neutral. "I can't imagine the Democrats won't run a campaign linking Republican candidates at all levels to Gov. Scott."
But other experts said this is just the latest indication of an unusually volatile electorate that could change quickly – certainly by his 2014 re-election bid -- and that the governor's standing isn't likely to affect next year's presidential race in Florida.
"We live in a strange, see-saw environment right now," said prominent Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale. "If there's a sense that he's gone too far, the political environment he creates could be helpful to Democrats, but President Obama will have to win Florida on his own."
On Scott's job performance, 29 percent of the respondents approved, 57 percent disapproved and 14 percent said "don't know" or gave no answer.
A May Quinnipiac survey showed him with 35 approval and 49 percent disapproval.
In the new poll, Scott got only a bare majority, 51 percent approval, from members of his own Republican Party, with 37 percent disapproval.
On the budget, which Scott plans to sign in a ceremony Thursday at The Villages, 53 percent disapproved; on another question, 54 percent said the budget is "unfair to people like me."
Respondents rated the GOP-dominated state Legislature at 27 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval.
Voters typically give legislatures only about 30 percent approval ratings, Smith said; but 61 percent also said they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with "the way things are going in Florida today."
The poll surveyed 1,196 registered voters May 17-23, with an error margin of 2.8 percentage points.
During that time, on May 19, Scott took an action that could have affected some voters' opinions, signing a hotly debated and heavily publicized new elections law. Critics say the GOP legislative majority was aiming at suppressing turnout of young and minority voters, while Republicans say was aimed at combating fraud.
Asked for Scott's reaction to the poll numbers, spokesman Lane Wright responded by email, "We are on the path to creating 700,000 jobs, but it can't be done without making tough decisions.
"Governor Scott wasn't elected to be most popular, he was elected to turn Florida's economy around and help people get back to work. … Governor Scott will continue to do what's right for Florida, making the tough calls and holding government accountable."
Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a politically neutral polling company that polls for news agencies, said he considers the Quinnipiac poll credible based on private polls he has done recently -- but also said it shows a volatile electorate.
"The pendulum is swinging wildly," he said. "Three years ago, the Democrats were riding high, one year ago the Republicans were riding high, and if you read anything into the special election in New York, it now seems to be going the other way again," he said.
Democrat Kathy Hochul upset Republican Jane Corwin Tuesday in a special election in a conservative, Republican-dominated New York House district after a campaign dominated by debate over the GOP proposal to privatize Medicare.
Scott's approval "really doesn't matter much until about a year before the next election," Coker said. "Who knows what will happen by then?
"There's only one fact of life -- Rick Scott is going to be governor for the next three years regardless whether his approval is 27 percent or 1 percent. There's no way a Republican Legislature is going to impeach him short of a major scandal."
Florida has no legal mechanism for popular recall of a governor.
Political experts including Coker, who has done political polling in Florida since 1984, could cite only two occasions when a Florida governor dropped so low in voter approval:
•Democrat Lawton Chiles hit 22 percent immediately after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida in 1992; he went on to win re-election in 1994. He died as his second term was ending with good popularity ratings.
•Former Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa saw his ratings drop to 28 percent in 1987 after backing a new state sales tax on services. His popularity never fully recovered, and dropped even lower after he called a 1989 special legislative session in an unsuccessful attempt to pass new abortion restrictions. He lost his re-election to Chiles in 1990.
Democrats exulted over the poll numbers.
It "shows that the people of Florida are rejecting Rick Scott's extreme Tea Party agenda and job-destroying polices," said party spokesman Eric Jotkoff. "Floridians are going to hold Rick Scott accountable in 2012 by electing Democrats up and down the ballot."
But state GOP Chairman Dave Bitner said Scott is pursuing an agenda that will help Florida and won't be distracted by polls.
"Policy and not polls is what drives his agenda," Bitner said. "We're already seeing unemployment numbers coming down, and once the budget is implemented, I think you're going to see a lot more Floridians getting back to work. That will be a good message to send."
Smith, of UF, said the numbers make Scott "one of the most toxic governors in the country. It's highly unusual for that to happen for a first-term governor."
He said Scott's comparatively low approval from fellow Republicans "is telling as to how divisive the primary was" – in which Scott upset establishment GOP favorite Bill McCollum – "and how divided the party is. The leadership of the party is now in a tough bind because they've embraced Scott."