Joe Lopinto (left) and John Fortunato

Joe Lopinto (left) and John Fortunato

A new poll shows John Fortunato leading interim Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto by 16 points with about two weeks to go before the March 24 special election to decide who will replace former Sheriff Newell Normand. 

The poll, conducted by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, put Fortunato's support at 48 percent compared with 32 percent for Lopinto and 20 percent undecided. 

The poll, commissioned by WDSU-TV, was conducted earlier this week and included 767 registered voters in Jefferson Parish. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Click here for the full poll results  

The big lead for Fortunato comes despite the fact that he has trailed Lopinto considerably in fundraising. Lopinto took office last summer following Normand's unexpected retirement. 

Greg Buisson, Fortunato's media consultant, said the UNO survey is consistent with the campaign's own polling. 

"I think more than anything what we've seen is that voters would rather have someone who is a career policeman than a career politician," Buisson said Thursday. "Obviously we're happy to see these numbers, but John's going to continue to campaign until 8 p.m. election night to get his message across to voters." 

The poll is the second UNO survey released in the campaign. The first, released in October, showed Fortunato at a whopping 25-point advantage, reflecting the name recognition the challenger enjoys from serving for three decades as spokesman for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office.  

The pollsters noted that Lopinto has closed the gap since that time, picking up a significant percentage of voters who had been undecided last fall. But Fortunato holds an overwhelming advantage among west bank voters, the survey found, leading Lopinto by some 30 percentage points there. 

The Lopinto campaign said that the automated UNO poll, known as an interactive voice response survey, "did not follow best practices for accuracy" and did not call cellphones or screen for likely voters. 

"But even with those flaws, this poll shows that Lopinto is rising," said Kevin Stuart, a Lopinto campaign spokesman. "That's consistent with other neutral polls and our own internal polling, which show the race to be a dead heat.

"All the polls indicate that as voters move from mere name recognition to a deeper consideration of qualifications, Lopinto is gaining more ground," Stuart added. "We are confident that trend will continue."

Buisson, the Fortunato consultant, said the percentage of undecided voters is low at this point for an election that's expected to draw a low turnout.  

"People know these candidates," he said, "and they've started to formulate their opinions."  

The UNO Survey Research Center acknowledged the limitations of so-called IVR surveys, also known as "robo-polls," including possible issues due to the use of only landline respondents. But the center said the poll had been "post-weighted to reflect gender, age, and race parameters of the population of registered voters in Jefferson Parish." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.