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Economy Tops Voters' Concerns in Senate Race

MONDAY, APRIL 22, 2013 - 12:01 AM Polling Institute

Poll results show some changes in priorities

The 2013 special U.S. Senate election campaign features a different roster of competitors than the 2012 Massachusetts Senate contest, but the economy still tops the list of issues that concern voters as they decide whom to send to Washington as the state’s junior senator.

The latest survey from the Western New England Polling Institute, conducted in partnership with MassLive.com, the Springfield Republican newspaper and television station WSHM CBS-3, found that 31 percent of voters who are likely to participate in the June 25 special election cited the economy, including jobs, unemployment and the stock market, as the most important issue in deciding which candidate to support. Interviewers instructed survey respondents to identify the top issue in their own words, and interviewers coded the responses into categories.

The telephone survey of 480 likely voters, conducted April 11 – 18, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. The survey also found U.S. House members Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch, both Democrats, with sizable leads in hypothetical match-ups against three potential Republican opponents: Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan of Abington and state Rep. Dan Winslow of Norfolk. Voters will nominate candidates in party primaries April 30 to run in the June 25 special election.

The economy also topped the list of concerns of voters in the fall 2012 U.S. Senate campaign between Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Twenty-eight percent of likely voters cited the economy in a survey that the Polling Institute conducted in partnership with MassLive.com and The Republican Sept. 28 through Oct. 4, 2012. Warren went on to defeat Brown, the incumbent, in November. She became the state’s senior senator when John Kerry resigned in February to become secretary of state.

Other issues have risen or fallen in importance since the 2012 race. Gun control and Second Amendment rights were cited second most often in the latest poll, with seven percent of likely voters offering that response. No likely voters cited those concerns in the Sept. 28 – Oct. 4, 2012 survey.

Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and a professor of political science at Western New England University, said the increased focus on gun control and Second Amendment rights is likely a result of the ongoing national debate over gun control in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Senate also debated and defeated a series of gun restrictions during the poll’s field period.

Major developments related to the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15 and the subsequent investigation, which coincided with the final four days of the eight-day field period for the survey, did not appear to affect voters’ priorities in the short run. Only one percent of likely voters cited defense, the war on terror, national security or homeland security as their top consideration in choosing a Senate candidate, unchanged from one percent in the fall survey.

"That could certainly change in the coming weeks and months as the public learns more about how the bombings came about," Vercellotti said.

Two key issues from the fall 2012 campaign appear to have diminished in importance for the special Senate election campaign. Only five percent of voters deemed likely to vote in the June 25 special election cited as the most important issue the morals, ethics or personal integrity of the candidate, down from 12 percent in the fall. During the fall campaign 18 percent of Brown’s supporters cited that as the most important issue, compared to eight percent of Warren supporters.

Vercellotti speculated that Brown’s repeated questions about whether Warren used her Native American ancestry to advance her career as a law professor prompted his supporters to rate candidate character highly. “Questions of candidate character are not yet playing a similar role in the current Senate race,” Vercellotti said.

Party control of the Senate also has diminished in importance as an issue since the fall. Democrats currently have an eight-seat majority, with an additional two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats.

Six percent of voters cited party control in the fall, while only one percent said the same in the latest survey. "The results speak to the significantly different context that the current candidates are running in,” Vercellotti said. “In the national election in the fall, Democrats used maintaining control of the Senate as a key issue to mobilize their supporters. Now, with just one seat on the line, the Democrats will remain in the majority regardless of the outcome on June 25."

Likely voters’ priorities in the latest survey varied by their party registration. While the economy was the top issue for all voters, registered Republicans placed the greatest emphasis, with 39 percent citing it as their top concern in choosing a candidate for Senate. The same was true for 30 percent of unenrolled voters and 25 percent of Democrats.

The second most cited issue depended on the party. Taxes and tax reform received mention from 11 percent of Republicans, compared to five percent of unenrolled voters and three percent of Democrats. Eleven percent of Democrats cited health care, compared to four percent of unenrolled voters and three percent of Republicans.

Established in 2005, the Western New England University Polling Institute conducts research on issues of importance to Massachusetts and the region. The Institute provides the University’s faculty and students with opportunities to participate in public opinion research.