Poll finds Scott leading US Senate race against Nelson

Political party members must name Florida's governor candidates soon

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., (left) and Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., (right)
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., (left) and Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., (right) (CNN)

ST. LEO, Fla. – The most recent survey of Florida voters from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute shows voters favor Republican Gov. Rick Scott over the Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson in the upcoming race to represent the Sunshine State in the U.S. Senate.

Nelson is nearing the end of his third term. Scott, ending his second term as governor, formally announced in April that he is challenging Nelson.

The most recent poll of 506 Florida voters, conducted the last week of May, found that if the election were held at that point, 39.5 percent would choose Scott. Nelson was selected by 34.4 percent.

Not everyone has made a decision, though, as 17.8 percent say they did not know who they would vote for, and an additional 8.3 percent say they wanted someone else.

Scott's margin was almost unchanged since St. Leo's polling in February, but Nelson's support has slipped and the percentage of undecided voters has increased.

"Gov. Scott has consistently held an advantage over Sen. Nelson in our polling, so the concern from Democrats nationally about losing in Florida is justified,” said Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute and a political scientist. “Gov. Scott has maintained his popularity over the past year, which makes him a formidable opponent for Nelson. The hope among Democrats is that President Donald Trump's lack of popularity will drag Scott down. The issue is that Trump's approval has been in the mid- to upper 40s in Florida for a while. If that rating doesn't drop, it's probably not enough to drag Scott down. Nelson is definitely behind."

A different question asked voters what they think of Scott’s job performance as governor, and results were in his favor. Of the voters responding, 27.5 percent say they have a very favorable opinion of Scott’s work as governor and 31 percent say somewhat favorable, for a combined 58.5 percent expressing positives.

Those who say their opinions were somewhat unfavorable were recorded at 15 percent, and an additional 18.4 percent say their opinions are not at all favorable, for a combined 33.4 percent expressing negative views. Just 8.1 percent say they are unsure.

Party nominations for gubernatorial candidates

Florida voters who are registered either Democrat or Republican were asked to choose in their parties’ respective primaries on Aug. 28 which candidate they want to run for governor in the general election in November. The survey asked which way the party members are leaning.  

On the Republican side, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is well-known in state politics, was selected by 34.5 percent of the 174 Republicans responding to the survey. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Jacksonville, who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, was preferred by 12.6 percent.

But the largest group of GOP survey respondents, 43.7 percent, were unsure. And 9.2 percent of respondents say they wanted to vote for someone else.


"While a lot of voters remain undecided, Adam Putnam seems to be gaining momentum. He has been in the news a lot lately, but the race is his to lose," Orlando said. "DeSantis hasn't been able to turn this race into the 2016 primary in the state where he plays the role of Donald Trump and Putnam is in the Marco Rubio role.” 

It is a more crowded primary field on the Democratic side. The survey showed former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and former Palm Beach Mayor Philip Levine were each selected by 14.4 percent of the 195 Democrats included in the survey sample. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was chosen by 9.7 percent and Orlando businessman Chris King trailed at 5.6 percent. 

Strikingly, 46.7 percent said they don’t know which candidate to back and another 9.2 percent say they want someone else. And now there is someone else. Billionaire and real estate investor Jeff Greene of Palm Beach entered the Democratic field as a latecomer, one day after Saint Leo stopped taking answers from respondents.

“The Democratic race is still very open,” Orlando commented. “Gwen Graham continues to rack up establishment support, such as the endorsement of the Florida Education Association (teachers’ union) last week. She is still being outspent by the Levine campaign. It remains to be seen whether his money will allow him to gain a foothold outside of his native South Florida.”

Respondents weigh head-to-head  final gubernatorial candidates

The survey also tested all Florida voters to see how the leading Democratic candidates might fare against the two GOP candidates.

This was accomplished through four questions stating possible matchups. Each time, the most popular response, at percentage levels of roughly 43 percent to 49 percent, showed that people said they don’t know. Other results trailed so far behind that no one office-seeker demonstrated an unshakeable lead.

For instance:

  • Adam Putnam vs. Gwen Graham put Putnam ahead at 24.5 percent, compared to 19.6 percent for Graham.
  • Adam Putnam vs. Philip Levine had Putnam at 24.3 percent, compared to 20.2 percent for Levine. 
  • Gwen Graham vs. Ron DeSantis put Graham ahead at 21.5 percent, compared to 16 percent for DeSantis.
  • Philip Levine vs. Ron DeSantis had Levine at 21.9 percent, compared to 17 percent for DeSantis.

In each of those potential scenarios, roughly 11 percent to 13 percent of respondents wanted to be able to choose someone else.

"It looks like Putnam has a small advantage over the top two Democrats, whereas DeSantis is behind,” Orlando said. "This probably shows both that Putnam is better known and that Putnam is seen as the more moderate Republican in the race. He is less likely to ‘scare’ away moderate voters that may not like DeSantis receiving the Trump endorsement."

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