Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez enjoys a 12-point lead over challenger Raquel Regalado with less than four months to go until the primary that could decide the race, according to a new poll conducted for the Miami Herald and other news organizations.
The survey of 600 registered Miami-Dade voters by Bendixen & Amandi International found Gimenez leading the pack of mayoral candidates with 35 percent support. Regalado, a two-term school board member, finished behind him at 23 percent, with none of the five lesser-known challengers registering support above 3 percent. That put Regalado in third place in the survey, behind the undecided category of 33 percent.
Even with the double-digit lead, the pollster behind the survey sees evidence of vulnerability for Gimenez, 62, who first took office in 2011.
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“I think if you’re the mayor, you’ve got to be concerned that Raquel is within striking distance,” said Fernand Amandi, a Coral Gables-based pollster best known for work done on behalf of Democratic Party candidates. The poll was conducted for the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald, WLRN and Univision 23. Both Gimenez and Regalado belong to the Republican Party.
“He’s been the mayor of Miami-Dade County for 5 1/2 years,” Amandi said. “The fact that he’s polling this far under 50 percent with three months out, I think, should be a sign of concern.”
The two camps pointed to encouraging news from the survey, conducted between May 1 and 4 in English and Spanish. Gimenez’s campaign spokesman noted broad support of Gimenez in the poll, with him leading among Republicans, Democrats and independents, as well as among Anglo, black and Hispanic voters.
The fact that he’s polling this far under 50 percent with three months out, I think, should be a sign of concern
Pollster Fernand Amandi on Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
“This poll just confirms what we’ve already known: The mayor is ahead, and our main opponent, despite campaigning for over a year now, has failed to gain any traction,” said Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a political consultant helping run Gimenez’s reelection effort.
Regalado’s campaign portrayed the numbers as showing Gimenez unable to close the deal with voters, and predicted the gap would close once she began aggressively making her case this summer. A top aide pointed to a similar Bendixen poll conducted in July that showed Regalado trailing Gimenez by 23 points, a lead cut in half in the latest survey.
“It shows this is a real contest. That Raquel just needs to meet more people,” said Regalado spokeswoman Elaine de Valle, a political consultant and former Herald writer. “Even though he’s obviously out-spending her, his message is not resonating with voters because it’s not the reality they’re facing every day.”
Regalado, 41, has been counting on her locally famous name — she’s the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, and her late mother, Raquel Regalado, was a popular Spanish-language radio host — and an affinity with Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American voting bloc to give her a shot at Gimenez. Throw in a candidacy that would make Regalado Miami-Dade’s first female mayor in a year when Hillary Clinton is leading the presidential race, and the challenger sees demographics as a potential advantage in 2016.
The results of the Bendixen survey highlight the work Regalado faces to realize that strategy: Gimenez held a four-point edge over Regalado with Hispanics, and Regalado was just one point up among Cuban-Americans. The two candidates basically tied among women voters, with Regalado taking 27 percent of the female vote to Gimenez’s 26 percent.
This poll just confirms what we’ve already known: The mayor is ahead, and our main opponent, despite campaigning for over a year now, has failed to gain any traction
Gimenez campaign spokesman Jesse Manzano-Plaza
And despite holding one of nine seats on the county school board and her father occupying the top job in Miami since 2009, Regalado remains an unknown for a large number of voters. About 34 percent of voters in the survey had a favorable opinion of Regalado, compared to 16 percent with a negative opinion. But 44 percent of those surveyed had no opinion of Regalado, who hosts a daily Spanish-language radio show on La Poderosa 670 AM and was first elected to the school board in 2010.
“About half the electorate has no idea who she is,” said Amandi, who conducted a poll on the mayor’s race for Regalado’s top political backer, auto magnate Norman Braman, in early 2015. “So she has an opportunity to still define herself and make the case why the incumbent doesn’t deserve reelection. The question is: Does she have enough time to pull that off?”
The first vote in the mayoral race occurs during the Aug. 30 primary. Like all county offices, Miami-Dade mayor exists as a nonpartisan post, and all seven candidates compete in the same primary. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the primary vote, the election is over. If not, the two highest vote-getters move onto a November run-off, held on Election Day.
Combined, the five other candidates — Williams Armbrister Sr., Robert Burke, Benjamin John Chiszar, Miguel Elzmendiz and Alfred Santamaría — registered 9 percent support. None holds elected office, and only one, Santamaría, a former congressional staffer, has been raising significant money for a campaign, according to the most recent reports. He registered at 1 percent. The top performer in the poll within that group, Armbrister, a retired utility foreman, landed at 3 percent.
That’s within the four-percentage-point margin of error for the poll. The filing deadline for the mayor’s race is June 21.
Sean Foreman, associate professor of political science at Barry University in Miami Shores, pointed to Gimenez’s 46-percent favorability score in the poll as a sign that “we could have a race on our hands.” He said any incumbent polling below 50 percent should be considered vulnerable.
“If Raquel Regalado can get hot and take an issue or two that resonates with voters, there’s room to beat Gimenez,” Foreman said. “I still think I’d rather be Gimenez, looking at those numbers. He seems to be doing enough to stay in the lead.”
The race tightens slightly among likely voters — those who participated in at least four of the last five elections. Within that smaller poll of respondents, the survey found only 10 points separating Gimenez (36 percent) and Regalado (26 percent) with 31 percent undecided.
Aaron Weiss, a commercial-litigation lawyer in Miami, said he knows Regalado from when she used to practice law. But Weiss said he’s firmly behind Gimenez, a former Miami city manager and county commissioner who came to office after then-mayor Carlos Alvarez was recalled in 2011. Gimenez won a full four-year term a year later.
“I voted for him in 2012. I think he’s been doing an excellent job,” said Weiss, 37. “He’s a strong advocate for the county… Miami-Dade needs someone familiar with the issues.”
Leo Frank Crisostomo, a 67-year-old retired economist and accountant, said he backs Regalado because he wants to see a change atop County Hall.
“We’re tired of so many abuses. Everything is an abuse. They’re going to bleed out the middle class and us, the retirees,” he said. “You go to the county to solve any problem and no one wants to help you. They treat you like a dog.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.