The race between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist for Florida governor has long been seen as a toss-up, and recent polls bolster the perception of a campaign that could go either way.
But conventional wisdom among Florida's political elite has shifted decidedly in Gov. Scott's favor, the latest Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll shows.
When we surveyed more than 130 of Florida's savviest political hands seven weeks ago, a slight majority predicted that Scott would beat Crist. This week, two-thirds of our Florida Insiders — including 38 percent of the Democrats — said they expect Scott to beat former Gov. Crist.
"With (absentee ballots) dropping in about two weeks, Crist's opportunities to change the dynamics of the race are limited. The clock is ticking and unfortunately that does not bode well for Crist," said one Democrat.
The Florida Insider Poll is an entirely unscientific survey of people closely involved in the political process, including campaign consultants, fundraisers, lobbyists, academics and activists. This Insider Poll included 77 Republicans, 53 Democrats, and 10 men and women registered to neither major party.
"The governor's race will be closer than some might predict, but the GOP off-year turnout advantage will be difficult to overcome," another Democrat said. "Up until the last 45 days there has been little effort to create the ground game needed to turn out a base vote. Had the (state Democratic Party) and/or Crist started four months ago, things may have looked more promising."
Said a Republican: "The Scott team spent too much time congratulating themselves on being political geniuses to realize this one will close late, close ugly, and they'd better be right that the Dem voter and field operation isn't real. Too much 'we're winning!' talk risks the GOP base not staying alert to the danger of Charlie, and that borders on political malpractice."
The last four public polls point to a neck-and-neck race. Other Insider Poll findings:
• 59 percent predicted that the medical marijuana initiative will garner the 60 percent voter approval it needs to pass. But one experienced Republican politico had his doubts: "Going to be close, but I would call for the upset here and say it just barely goes down."
• 55 percent predicted Crist would run for office again if he loses in November. "Asking if we expect Charlie Crist will run for office ever again is like asking if we think it will ever rain again in Tallahassee," one Republican quipped.
• Only 19 percent predicted Scott would run for office after leaving the governorship.
Other top predictions
Florida Republicans have a deep and wide bench of candidates for top statewide offices, but according to the Florida Insiders the next GOP nominee for governor is almost a foregone conclusion.
Take a bow, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Even with lots of potentially strong Republican contenders in the mix, more than two-thirds of those participating in the latest Times Florida Insider poll predicted that Putnam, the red-headed 40-year-old from Bartow, will be the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2018. None of the other most popular choices — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — cracked 10 percent.
Predicting the next Democratic nominee for governor is much harder, but of the 100 Florida Insiders who ventured a guess, the most common choice was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, picked by 36 percent of our Insiders. A dozen people chose Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, 10 said they expected current Democratic nominee Crist to give it another go, and eight pointed to former state Sen. Dan Gelber. A handful of people also mentioned U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham, who is running for Congress in north Florida.
Needless to say, this is hardly a reliable predictor of future nominees. But the survey shows who many political elites see as the strongest contenders for top state offices.
Three out of four Florida Insiders expect Sen. Rubio to seek a second term in 2016.
Asked about Republican Senate nominees should Rubio vacate the seat, 28 Insiders predicted Atwater, 20 Weatherford and 19 Attorney General Pam Bondi.
And Democratic candidates for Senate in 2016? Twenty-six people guessed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 14 said U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and 16 predicted Crist would make his third bid for the Senate.
Check out Political Connections on Bay News 9 today at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., when Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Ben Pollara, the director of United for Care, debate the pros and cons of Amendment 2, the medical marijuana ballot initiative.