After 11 years in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Bill Nelson is facing a tough race for re-election.

A Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 Exclusive Poll released Friday found the incumbent senator only holds a 5-point lead, 47–42 percent, over his competitor, Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV.

With the poll's 3.5 percent margin of error, the race could go either way on Nov. 6.

Friday's numbers in the Senate race were tighter than our Florida Decides Poll conducted just three weeks ago, which showed Nelson with an eight-point lead.


A shift since September

Perhaps more interesting than the tight race is that undecided voters seem to be making up their minds -- and more of them, 4 percent, are opting for one of the independent candidates, Chris Borgia or Bill Gaylor, as opposed to the longtime politicians. In September, only 1 percent said they planned to vote for another candidate.

J. Brad Coker, of polling company Mason-Dixon, said this indicates voters "don't like Nelson and aren't comfortable with Mack."

Coker said the problem for both candidates could be a result of the negative ads both camps have been running, and it could be the result of lackluster campaigns. He pointed to a guide from the League of Women Voters that had a questionnaire that had been given to both candidates. Nelson's was filled out. Mack's was blank.

The shift in voter attitude, though, could end up making the difference. Most of the voters leaning toward the independent candidates had previously been Mack supporters, and their vote in another column could give Nelson enough of an edge to win, even if he remains under 50 percent.

One advantage Mack does have going for him right now is the momentum of the GOP's presidential candidate. With Mitt Romney pulling ahead in recent polls, Mack could potentially ride his coattails to a victory if voters decide to stay along party lines.

Of the 7 percent of voters who remain undecided about this race, only 1 percent planned to vote for Obama, and 2 percent were undecided regarding the presidential contest. But 4 percent of them say they plan to vote for Romney.

That would bring the overall numbers to 48 percent for Nelson and 46 percent for Mack, a statistical dead heat.

Right now, women seem to be the most undecided demographic when it comes to the senate race, with 10 percent saying they're not sure who they plan to give their vote to in November.

The younger crowd could also be the difference, with 13 percent of 18–34 year olds not yet having made up their minds.

The two candidates face off in their one and only debate on Oct. 17 at Nova Southeastern University, in an event sponsored by Leadership Florida.


Mack, Nelson campaigns respond to poll

From the Mack campaign:

"Today's [Florida Decides] poll validates what I have been saying for weeks -- the race between Connie Mack and Bill Nelson is close and getting closer. Though this poll shows we are down by five points, there are several key takeaways that are critical to the analysis of this data:

1. Connie is gaining ground among the voters. Nelson has been stuck in the mid to upper 40s in virtually every poll and is now slipping -- presumably because the millions and millions dollars of Nelson's obnoxious personal smears and negativity have backfired and growing voter disapproval of his liberal record.

2. Given the proven nature of voter performance, it is reasonable to expect undecided voters will break against an incumbent at a ratio of at least 3:2. This poll has 7 percent undecided.

3. The demographic sample of this poll (44D, 40R, 16I) still does not accurately reflect the likely makeup of the electorate, which we continue to project will be 40D, 40R, 20I.

In short, given the topline data in the match up between Connie Mack and Bill Nelson, coupled with the poll's demographic composition and expected voter behavior models, we are even more pleased with our standing in this race as we enter the last three weeks and are extremely confident on November 6th Connie will be elected Florida's next United States Senator."

— Jeff Cohen, Mack campaign manager

From the Nelson campaign:

"When all the campaigning and polling are done, the voters of Florida will make a choice. And in this election, they have a clear choice: A common-sense senator who has a record of honesty and integrity versus a congressman beholding to special interests, someone that newspapers say has an undistinguished record and a checkered past."

— Ryan Brown, Nelson campaign spokesman


Poll numbers in detail

QUESTION: Do you recognize the name ________?
(If yes) Do you have a favorable, unfavorable or neutral opinion of ________?

  Bill Nelson
39% 32% 24% 5%
  Connie Mack IV
30% 32% 7%


QUESTION: If the 2012 general election for Florida's U.S. Senate seat were held today, which one of the following candidates would get your vote?

  • Bill Nelson, the democrat
  • Connie Mack IV, the republican
  • Chris Borgia, independent
  • Bill Gaylor, independent
47% 42% 4% 7%
  North Florida
37% 53% 3% 7%
  Central Florida
48% 42% 3% 7%
  Tampa Bay
49% 38% 5% 8%
  Southwest Florida
37% 54% 5% 4%
  Southeast Florida
55% 34% 4% 7%
43% 48% 5% 4%
50% 37% 3% 10%
50% 36% 1% 13%
44% 43% 6% 7%
46% 44% 4% 6%
49% 43% 3% 5%
39% 50% 5% 6%
89% 5%% - 6%
44% 39% 2% 15%
82% 9% 3% 6%
7% 82% 4% 7%
51% 37% 4% 8%

** Borgia 3%
** Gaylor 1%


The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters -- all likely to vote in the November election -- was conducted Sept. 17–19 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13.

The poll, which included respondents using land lines and cell phones, was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.