By Jim Ellis
March 24, 2017 — The Sunshine State of Florida may set an aggregate polling record if the current surveying pace continues. Already we have seen four different pollsters test what may evolve into a US Senate political battle between incumbent Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R), including two new studies released just this week.
More telling than the sheer polling volume is seeing all four surveying entities detect virtually the same result. That is, Sen. Nelson has a discernible lead, as one would expect from a three-term incumbent, but his advantage is small and he fails to top 50 percent in any of the publicized ballot tests.
Sen. Nelson was first elected to the House in 1978 after spending six years in the Florida legislature. He served until running for governor in 1990, losing the Democratic primary to former three-term Sen. Lawton Chiles, who would go onto unseat Gov. Bob Martinez (R) to win the statewide political position. Nelson returned to win the office of Florida treasurer, insurance commissioner and fire marshal in 1994, and then was elected US senator in 2000. He will be 76 years old in November of 2018, and has said on numerous public occasions that he will run for a fourth term.
Gov. Scott came to politics after a career in the hospital industry, which led to him forming his own venture capital firm. Politically, he seems to specialize in winning close, upset elections. He nipped then-Attorney General and former US Congressman Bill McCollum in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary with a three-point margin of victory, and then defeated Florida CFO Alex Sink (D), 49-48 percent, in a contest that the latter was expected to win easily. Despite poor job approval ratings, Gov. Scott was able to slip past former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) in his re-election campaign, in yet another one-point race (48-47 percent).
Several times, Gov. Scott has made statements indicating that he is seriously considering challenging Sen. Nelson next year, hence the early interest in polling the hypothetical campaign.
The polling turnstile began in February when the University of North Florida sampled 973 Florida respondents over a two-week period and found Sen. Nelson leading Gov. Scott, 44-38 percent, a six-point margin. As also reported, Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, from their early March survey backed with superior methodological underpinnings than the UNF study, detected a similar split between the two men, 46-41 percent.
This week, two more pollsters released their own Florida data and again found similar and consistent results. Cherry Communications, polling for the Florida Chamber of Commerce (March 6-14; 600 likely Florida voters), saw a 48-42 percent Nelson lead, with St. Leo University (March 3-11; 507 Florida adults from online panels designed to produce a purely random sample) reporting the two with a 39-34 percent division.
There is clearly enough consistent data to suggest that a Nelson-Scott Florida Senate race, should the governor ultimately make the challenge, is a top-tier contest. Scott has been plagued with poor approval ratings throughout his tenure as the state’s chief executive, but he overcame his weak standing to secure a close re-election victory in 2014. Now, however, he is recording some of the better job approval scores during his entire time in office. The same St. Leo University poll, for example, finds him with a 56:39 percent positive to negative ratio, which may be the strongest rating he’s ever posted.
As we have seen in the past two decades, close races are nothing new for the Florida electorate and it has become the quintessential swing state. For diverse pollsters to report such steady similar numbers at this early juncture suggests Gov. Scott will be a formidable challenger, and that Sen. Nelson is no lock for re-election.
It is becoming apparent that a Nelson-Scott campaign will attract a great deal of political attention from now all the way through the 2018 election period.