Opinion poll: As legislative session looms, FL’s mostly GOP leadership might be out of step with voters

Florida Capitol
The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado

A statewide survey of Florida voters, conducted following the attack by Donald Trump’s supporters on the U.S. Capitol, suggests a distinct lack of support for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to ramp up criminal penalties for what he considers “disorderly” protests.

Asked to rate their support for “protecting our constitutional right to free assembly and free speech by legally protesting without fear of criminal charges,” 90 percent considered it important, with 71 percent saying it is “very important.”

Seventy-one percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans deemed the issue a top priority, according to EMC Research, a data-analytics and political research firm.

Eighty percent of respondents said they were more likely to support a legislator who voted to protect that priority, with 56 percent much more likely.

With the 2021 legislative session due to begin on March 2, the poll suggests the state’s mostly Republican leadership might be out of step with the voters, notwithstanding that the former gained seats in both the House and Senate during the General Election.

The governor’s protest bill is just one example.

Legislation filed on DeSantis’ behalf (HB 1 and SB 484) would increase penalties for people involved in protests that become “disorderly” or those who damage historical monuments; punish local governments that move law enforcement funding toward counseling and similar nonpunitive anti-crime initiatives; and provide a legal defense for motorists who “accidentally” run over protesters on public roads.

DeSantis first proposed the idea following last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and renewed the pitch in light of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. Legislative Democrats in Florida and the ACLU have both condemned that tack, with the latter denouncing it as a “political stunt.”

Coincidentally, 54 percent of respondents favored the reordered law-enforcing spending priorities the governor wants to ban.

EMC surveyed 600 “likely registered voters” in English and Spanish by cell- and land-line phones between Jan. 7 and Jan. 10. The margin for error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

This was after a mob inspired by the president trashed the U.S. Capitol, attacked police guarding the building, rifled through offices, and searched for leaders including Vice President Mike Pence who wouldn’t go along with Trump’s claims that Democrats had stolen the election. They even erected a scaffold. At least five people died in the riot.

Fifty-one percent viewed President-elect Joe Biden favorably (although Donald Trump carried the state in the general election).

DeSantis’ favorable/unfavorable ratings were split, 47:47. Legislative Democrats scored a similar split, at 45 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable. The Legislative GOP was under water with the public, at 42 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable.

The survey uncovered other potential areas where Republican priorities don’t match voter preferences.

For example, 83 percent of respondents think it’s important to strengthen unemployment protections for people who’ve lost jobs because of COVID-19 (63 percent said very important). Florida’s system, designed by GOP legislative majorities when Republican Rick Scott was governor, melted down amid unprecedented demand at the height of COVID job losses.

The system is the stingiest in the nation, based on a combination of payment amounts and the number of weeks for employment benefits.

Meanwhile, 84 percent favored financial assistance to families struggling financially because of the pandemic (with 62 percent ranking it very important).

Seventy-seven percent want to continue to allow Floridians to change the state Constitution through citizens’ initiatives. In April, DeSantis signed GOP-backed legislation raising the number of petition signatures from 10 percent of the total voters in the last presidential election to 25 percent, and to do so in more congressional districts.

The survey found 53 percent support for legislation to protect businesses and medical providers from legal liability for COVID infections, but only 32 percent rated the issue extremely important. A House subcommittee approved a bill (HB 7) to do just that last week. A separate measure would shield health care providers.

The survey found 62 percent support for the minimum wage increase mandated by citizens’ initiative last year. Seventy one percent didn’t want the Legislature to countermand local ordinances, a continuing source of friction between the Legislature and city and county governments.

On that last issue, even 64 percent of Republican deemed the Legislature’s interference extremely important; among Democrats, it was 79 percent.

Asked about what they considered Florida’s top problems, 25 percent named public health and the pandemic; 13 percent named politicians, government, and voting; and 12 percent said jobs and the economy.