Independents will decide Florida’s statewide elections, but polling them is tricky

Independent voters are the white whale of Florida elections.

They cannot vote in closed primaries, so they didn’t play a part in electing Andrew Gillum or Ron DeSantis in August, and typically turn out in lower numbers in years when a president isn’t on the ballot.

But a national environment dominated by President Donald Trump, combined with record-breaking spending in the U.S. Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott, have focused the political world’s attention on Florida. The intense interest is reflected in an uptick among all voters in early voting, including independents.

Statewide polls conducted in the past month show a massive variance among voters who are not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party. One poll conducted by the University of North Florida this week shows Gillum with a 25 percentage point lead over DeSantis among independents and Nelson leading Scott by 17 points. Another poll conducted by CBS/YouGov this week shows DeSantis and Scott both winning independents by 13 percentage points.

The disparities among independents come even though most statewide polls show Gillum and Nelson with slight leads within the margin of error. For example, the UNF poll showed Gillum with a 6 percentage point lead and Nelson with a 1 percentage point lead, while the CBS poll showed Gillum up by 1 percentage point and Nelson in a tie with Scott.

Accurately polling voters who don’t identify or aren’t registered with either party is a tricky proposition.

“When you’re dealing with small samples like that, it gets really difficult to get a good sense of what they’re doing exactly as a group,” said Michael Binder, the director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Library. “The margin of error for that is relatively high. That’s just a problem you have.”

The number of independent voters polled, compared to Democrats and Republicans, also varies widely within different polls. While Republicans and Democrats usually are counted within a percentage point or two of one another, the percentage of independents in each poll varies. A recent CNN poll said 45 percent of respondents “described themselves” as independents or members of another party, while a recent St. Pete Polls survey contained 23 percent registered voters without a party affiliation. Some polls include voters who are registered with minor parties as “independents,” while others only include voters who are not registered with a political party.

“The good pollsters know who they’re calling and know the voter registration of the folks they are talking to,” said Democratic strategist Ben Pollara. “Then they ask for voter registration and ask them what [the voter] considers themselves. It really depends on how you slice up the pie.”

Voters who are not affiliated with a party are voting at a higher rate in 2018 than the last midterm election in 2014, according to University of Florida professor Dan Smith. Through Oct. 30, about 350,000 voters without a party affiliation have voted by mail and about 250,000 voters without a party affiliation have voted early in person, according to Smith. Both of those figures outpace the total amount of no-party-affiliated voters who voted early in 2014. Democrats and Republicans are also voting at a higher rate this year than in 2014, when Scott won a second term as governor by a narrow margin over Democrat Charlie Crist.

Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University, said more and more people are registering without a party in recent years and newly registered no-party voters tend to be young, new to voting and more likely to support Democrats.

“Democrats are doing relatively well with those voters,” Wagner said.

Part of the reason independent or no-party-affiliation voters are tougher to poll than Democrats or Republicans is because they turn out to vote at a much lower rate. Binder said that independents are likely not to eclipse 20 percent turnout during this election, part of the reason why there’s so much variance within different polls among independents. No-party-affiliated voters have cast 17.6 percent of total early ballots as of Thursday, while Republicans are 41.7 percent of the total and Democrats are 40.1 percent.

There’s no way to know who independents vote for until after Election Day. Exit polls in 2014 showed Crist with a 2 point lead among independents over Scott, though Scott ended up winning by just over 1 percentage point.

Pollara said a 2- or 3-point margin among independents could be enough for Gillum or Nelson to win in 2018 if Democrats turn out at a higher rate, adding that independents who are spurred to vote for Gillum or Nelson will likely vote for Democrats up and down the ballot.

“The numbers that we’ve seen so far do not indicate a huge Democratic surge or a huge Republican surge. [Independents] are going to decide the campaign,” Pollara said. “It’s unquestionable at this point.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049