With economy humming, Scott has a leg up in governor’s race

It is one of the eternal mysteries of political prognostication: Why does Rick Scott, the Gollum-like Florida governor, have any chance at re-election?

Because indeed, he does have a shot.

Despite consistently polling as one of the nation’s most unpopular governors, with approval ratings that have barely struggled out of the 30s throughout his time in office (he’s in the low 40s today), Scott maintains a 5-point lead in a new statewide poll, 40.9 percent to 35.7 percent for Charlie Crist, with the Libertarian candidate, Adrian Wyllie garnering 6.3 percent. In a head-to-head match-up with Crist, Scott leads by 6 points: 43.7 percent to Crist’s 37.6 percent.

Most recent polling shows the race between Scott and former Gov. Crist as something like a toss-up, with one or the other ahead by a margin slightly above the margin of error.

So why does Scott — with his penchant for secrecy, stealth trips on Big Sugar’s dime; his use of on-duty police officers as a campaign props and his aggressive attempts to pump the poor for fees to subject themselves to drug tests, while slashing Medicaid services and unemployment benefits — stand a decent chance of getting back into office?

The simple answer: It’s the economy, stupid.

Whether or not you believe Scott is responsible for it, Florida’s economy has improved markedly since the dark days of the Great Recession. And that’s a big deal. Because in part because of its greater exposure to the real-estate collapse relative to other states, and because Florida had long enjoyed very low unemployment rates, the crash hit particularly hard in the Sunshine State.

When Scott took office in January 2011, Florida’s unemployment rate was hovering above 11 percent, where it had been stuck throughout the 2010 election season. Scott barely beat Democrat Alex Sink, but he did so by spending a small fortune on ads mainly vowing to do just one thing as governor: create jobs. (Well, two things if you count destroying “Obamacare.”)

Today, the state’s unemployment rate stands at 6.2 percent, a tenth of a point higher than the national average, but closer to its historic levels. Some counties — notably some rural, red ones, have rates as low as 3.4 percent (Walton County), while swing counties like Orange, home to Orlando, (5.8 percent) and blue ones like Broward (5 percent), are trending well, too. The rate in Miami-Dade is slightly higher, at 6.6 percent, but the sense of utter freefall in the state, both due to the recession, and the almost hysterical fear of Obamacare in 2010, has ebbed, though Florida still hasn’t gotten over its fear of universal healthcare enough to expand Medicaid.

That means that whatever you think of Scott — and the polls show many Floridians don’t think much of him — he can, and will, run on the improving economy. And he’ll spend tens of millions of dollars taking credit for it.

Of course, the data don’t exactly support the Scott re-election campaign’s obvious desire to take advantage of the improved economic numbers, which in reality, reflect the overall improvement in the national economy, and the numerous job seekers in the state who’ve dropped off the rolls altogether.

As for the impact of the governor’s policies, a comprehensive Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times review last year of Scott’s efforts to deliver on his promise of 700,000 new jobs in seven years, mostly consisting of generous tax cuts to business, showed paltry results. Nearly 15 percent of Scott’s proposed deals collapsed, $45 million in tax breaks for job creation remained on the table, and $25.2 million in tax incentives intended to bring 5,4456 jobs to Miami-Dade and Broward counties had resulted in just 61 jobs at the time of the review.

That’s why the gubernatorial election, which could turn out to be the most expensive in the country, will be about more than the numbers. It will be a dramatic race to the bottom, in which both candidates and their supporting PACs vie to prove the other guy is the bigger demon.

To win the hearts and minds of a majority of Florida voters, Charlie Crist, who’ll get a boost tomorrow from former president Bill Clinton, the economic explainer in chief, will need to wrestle any precious economic gains the state has made over the last four years out of Gollum’s grip.