By Jim Ellis
March 10, 2017 — The 2018 Florida Senate race is already creating news. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) has repeatedly said he will seek re-election to a fourth term even though he had been rumored as a retirement candidate.
The senator will turn 76 years of age before the next election and completing 30 years of congressional service at that time has led some to believe he might call it a career in 2018. His public comments about seeking re-election are unequivocal, however.
Simultaneously, Gov. Rick Scott (R), ineligible to seek a third term, has publicly discussed challenging Nelson. Now, two contemporary polls testing the hypothetical race were just released, and the early numbers are suggesting a typically close Florida result.
The University of Northern Florida ran a somewhat flawed poll during February (Feb. 16-26; 973 “completed surveys”), over a long 11-day sampling period but featuring a large respondent pool. Referring to them in terms of “completed surveys” tells us little about the group composition, however. Thus, we cannot clearly determine whether those queried are even registered voters, let alone likely participants in a midterm election.
Professional pollster Mason-Dixon Polling & Research also surveyed the Nelson-Scott proposed Senate campaign. They did so over the March 2-3 period questioning 625 Florida registered voters.
Though their methodologies are different, the two polls seem to arrive at the same conclusion: that Sen. Nelson holds a small but discernible lead over Gov. Scott, and that the probability of the two fighting a close battle is quite high.
UNF finds Sen. Nelson leading 44-38 percent, while the Mason-Dixon ballot test quantifies his edge at five points, 46-41 percent.
The Mason-Dixon study gives both men favorable, or slightly favorable, ratings: Nelson, 42:25 percent and Scott, 41:38 percent. Though the senator’s ratio is substantially better, Gov. Scott has long been plagued with a poor favorability index, and this test actually shows him in better standing than at most other times during his tenure.
Gov. Scott does best in North Florida, leading Sen. Nelson, 56-34 percent. Not surprisingly, the Democrat’s advantage in the southeastern sector is a whopping 60-24 percent. The partisan breakdown is similar for both men. Among Democrats, Sen. Nelson’s loyalty factor is 81-10 percent, while Gov. Scott registers 77-9 percent preference among Republicans.
Florida is often viewed as the nation’s quintessential swing state, with close races being closer to normal than ones decided by wide margins.
The voter registration figures give us a clue as to why the Sunshine State is often a heated battleground. From almost 13 million registered voters, Democrats claim 37.8 percent of the electorate and Republicans’ 35.3 percent, with 24.1 percent choosing the non-affiliated option.
After the famously close 2000 presidential race (decided by only 537 votes statewide) that awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, five additional statewide contests have ended with only one percentage point separating two candidates.
The last two presidential contests fall into this category. In 2012, President Obama slipped past Mitt Romney, 50-49 percent, while President Trump bested Hillary Clinton by a similar 49-48 percent margin last November.
Sen. Nelson has not experienced close Senate re-election contests, winning 55-42 percent in 2012, and 60-38 percent six years earlier.
Gov. Scott, on the other hand, has been a participant in two dead-heat campaigns, winning 49-48 percent in 2010 over then State CFO Alex Sink (D), and again in 2014 when he defeated former Gov. Charlie Crist (D), 48-47 percent. Both times, Scott was rated as a heavy underdog, so his potential as a challenger to Sen. Nelson cannot be taken lightly.