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Warren Gains Ground on Brown in Senate Race

Posted October 7, 2011

Brown holds 5-point lead, down from 17 points in March survey

Democrat Elizabeth Warren has pulled to within five points of Republican Scott Brown in the race for the United States Senate, according to the latest survey from the Western New England University Polling Institute.

The telephone survey of 475 registered voters, conducted September 29 through October 5, found that 47 percent of voters would support Brown and 42 percent would back Warren if the election were held today.

Click here to view complete poll results.

The gap separating the candidates has shrunk considerably since the Polling Institute’s last survey on the Senate race in March 2011. That survey found Brown leading Warren by a margin of 51 percent to 34 percent.

Warren fares better against Brown than Alan Khazei, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination leading up to the special election that sent Brown to Washington in 2010. Brown leads Khazei by a margin of 52 percent to 35 percent in the latest survey.

The survey also found that Warren’s official entry into the race three weeks ago has caught the attention of rank-and-file Democrats. Fifty-six percent of voters who identified themselves as Democrats said they had heard a lot or some information about the Senate election, compared to 39 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independent voters.

“Warren’s entry into the race has shaken things up,” said Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and an associate professor of political science at Western New England University. “But, obviously, much can happen between now and Election Day 2012.”

Warren has the highest favorability rating among five Democratic candidates for the Senate seat, but she also has the highest unfavorability rating. Thirty-three percent of registered voters said they have a favorable view of Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School, and 16 percent said they have an unfavorable view of her. Warren’s favorability is up from 17 percent in the March poll, but her unfavorability rating also has climbed from 3 percent in March.

Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year, has a favorability rating of 14 percent and an unfavorability rating of 11 percent. Those ratings have changed little since the March survey. The other three Democrats in the survey, Bob Massie, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 1994; state Rep. Tom Conroy; and immigration lawyer Marisa DeFranco, all had favorable-unfavorable ratings in the single digits.
Brown remains popular among Massachusetts voters, with a favorability rating of 52 percent and an unfavorability rating of 27 percent, virtually unchanged since the March survey. The senator’s job approval, at 54 percent, is down three points from March, but the difference is within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. The proportion of voters disapproving of Brown’s job performance, however, has climbed from 24 percent in March to 30 percent this fall.

In the head-to-head matchup between Brown and Warren, each is consolidating their base, with 82 percent of Democrats saying they would support Warren and 92 percent of Republicans saying they would back Brown. But the all important independent vote, which often decides statewide races in Massachusetts, tilts toward Brown by a margin of 57 percent to 32 percent for Warren.

Brown leads among men, voters with some college education or less, and voters living in central Massachusetts and the North and South Shores. Warren runs strongest among women, college graduates, and voters in Western Massachusetts and Boston and neighboring suburbs. In each of those categories she holds leads of four or five percentage points, within the margins of error for those subgroups.

Although Warren has narrowed the gap in the matchup with Brown, her favorability ratings indicate that she is still unknown to a large number of voters. When asked to give a favorable or unfavorable rating of Warren, 30 percent of voters said they had not heard of her, and another 16 percent had no opinion.

“This early stage of the race offers Warren an opportunity to define herself to voters,” Vercellotti said. “But this is also an opportunity for her opponents for the Democratic nomination and Brown to characterize her in unflattering terms. Negative early impressions can sometimes haunt a candidate throughout a campaign.”

Republicans, for example, have attempted to use Warren’s employment as a professor at Harvard Law School to suggest that she is out of touch with ordinary citizens, Vercellotti noted. But he said that data in the latest survey show the Harvard connection currently helps Warren more than it hurts her.

Voters were asked whether Warren’s employment at Harvard Law School made them more likely to vote for her, less likely to vote for her, or did it make no difference. Sixty-three percent said it made no difference, while 21 percent said the Harvard connection would make them more likely to vote for her, and 13 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for her. Among undecided voters, 21 percent said they would be more likely, five percent said they would be less likely, and 67 percent said it would make no difference. Even among Brown supporters, 10 percent said Warren’s Harvard employment would make them more likely to vote for her.

Democrats, on the other hand, have not entirely succeeded in labeling Brown a conservative in a part of the country that prefers Republicans to adopt a moderate approach. The survey asked voters to choose which word best describes Brown: liberal, moderate or conservative. Forty-four percent said moderate, while 28 percent said conservative, four percent said liberal and 24 percent said they did not know. Among undecided voters, 60 percent said they could not categorize Brown.

“Both parties, no doubt, will be working hard to educate those undecided voters over the next 13 months,” Vercellotti said.

The Western New England University Polling Institute conducted telephone interviews with 524 adults ages 18 and older drawn from across Massachusetts using random-digit-dialing Sept. 29 through Oct. 5, 2011. The sample yielded 475 adults who said they are registered to vote in Massachusetts. Unless otherwise noted, the figures in this release are based on the statewide sample of registered voters.

The Polling Institute dialed household telephone numbers, known as “landline numbers,” and cell phone numbers for the survey. In order to draw a representative sample from the landline numbers, interviewers first asked for the youngest male age 18 or older who was home at the time of the call, and if no adult male was present, the youngest female age 18 or older who was at home at the time of the call. Interviewers dialing cell phone numbers interviewed the respondent who answered the cell phone after confirming three things: (1) that the respondent was in a safe setting to complete the survey; (2) that the respondent was an adult age 18 or older; and (3) that the respondent was a resident of Massachusetts. The landline and cell phone data were combined and weighted to reflect the adult population of Massachusetts by gender, race, age, and county of residence using U.S. Census estimates for Massachusetts. 

All surveys are subject to sampling error, which is the expected probable difference between interviewing everyone in a population versus a scientific sampling drawn from that population. The sampling error for a sample of 475 registered voters is +/- 4.5 percent, at a 95 percent confidence interval. Thus if 55 percent of registered voters said they approved of the job that Scott Brown is doing as U.S. Senator, one would be 95 percent sure that the true figure would be between 50.5 percent and 59.5 percent (55 percent +/- 4.5 percent) had all Massachusetts voters been interviewed, rather than just a sample. Sampling error increases as the sample size decreases, so statements based on various population subgroups are subject to more error than are statements based on the total sample.  Sampling error does not take into account other sources of variation inherent in public opinion studies, such as non-response, question wording, or context effects.

Established in 2005, the Western New England University Polling Institute conducts research on issues of importance to Massachusetts residents and communities. The Institute provides the University’s faculty and students with valuable opportunities to participate in public opinion research. Additional information about the Polling Institute is available at


Western New England University is a private, independent, coeducational institution founded in 1919. Located on an attractive 215-acre suburban campus in Springfield, Massachusetts, Western New England University serves 3,955 students, including 2,575 full-time undergraduate students. Undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs are offered through Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, Engineering, and Pharmacy, and School of Law.


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