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Poll Finds Tight Race for Governor

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2014 - 12:01 AM Polling Institute

Baker, Coakley separated by one percentage point among likely voters

As the candidates for governor of Massachusetts prepare for tonight’s (Sept. 29) televised debate in Springfield, the latest survey from the Western New England University Polling Institute finds the race to be a dead heat.

Republican Charlie Baker leads Democrat Martha Coakley by one point among likely voters and also by one point among the larger sample of registered voters in the telephone survey, conducted Sept. 20-28. But the race is in flux, with 41 percent of likely voters who expressed a candidate preference saying they could change their minds before Election Day on Nov. 4.

The survey of 416 likely voters found Baker with support from 44 percent, while 43 percent said they would vote for Coakley if the election were held today. Independent candidates Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick each received backing from two percent of likely voters, and independent candidate Scott Lively won support from one percent. Another seven percent said they are undecided.

The margin of error for the sample of 416 likely voters is plus or minus five percentage points. The margin of error for the larger sample of 536 registered voters, which includes the likely voter sample, is plus or minus four percent.

The Polling Institute also asked voters about their preferences in the race for a seat in the United States Senate. Incumbent Democrat Ed Markey, who won the seat in a special election in June 2013 and is seeking a full six-year term in November, leads Republican Brian Herr, a former selectman from Hopkinton, by 22 points among likely voters, 56 percent to 34 percent.

The results in the race for governor reveal a much closer contest than previous surveys from the Polling Institute, which found Coakley with a 20-point lead over Baker among registered voters last October, and a 29-point lead among registered voters in a survey conducted March 31 through April 7. Coakley, currently the state attorney general, and Baker, a former health care executive who served in the cabinets of two Republican governors, won their parties’ nominations in primary elections Sept. 9.

“With the campaign in full swing now, it is anybody’s race between the two front-runners,” said Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and a professor of political science at Western New England University.

The five candidates for governor are scheduled to participate in a televised debate tonight at CityStage in Springfield. Local news media and civic and educational organizations, including Western New England University, are sponsoring the debate.

“Voters have five more weeks to get a look at these candidates,” Vercellotti said. “With the race tightening, events like tonight’s debate take on heightened importance.”

The survey found that Baker, who ran as the Republican Party’s nominee for governor in 2010 and lost to incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick, saw his favorability and unfavorability ratings increase since the spring survey. Forty-two percent of registered voters viewed him favorably and 21 percent viewed him unfavorably in the latest poll, compared to 31 percent favorable and 13 percent unfavorable in the March 31 - April 7 survey.

Coakley’s favorability ratings have narrowed considerably since the April survey. Forty-two percent of registered voters viewed her favorably and 35 percent unfavorably in the latest poll, compared to 51 percent favorable and 27 percent unfavorable in the March 31 – April 7 poll.

Vercellotti noted that Coakley emerged from a hotly contested Democratic primary a few weeks ago, and said the primary race may have contributed to the erosion in her favorability rating and growth in her unfavorability rating. “One of the hazards of the late primary schedule in Massachusetts is that candidates in a competitive primary don’t have a lot of time to recover before the general election,” he said.

The three independent candidates, Falchuk, McCormick, and Lively, are relatively unknown to voters. Each candidate has favorability ratings in the single digits in the latest survey. About four out of five registered voters said they had not heard of each of the independent candidates or had no opinion of them.

The governor’s race is unfolding against growing dissatisfaction about the state in general, the survey found. Forty-four percent of registered voters said the state is headed in the right direction, while 45 percent said that “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.” Those numbers have soured since a Polling Institute survey conducted Oct. 1-7, 2013, when 56 percent of registered voters said the state was headed in the right direction and 35 percent said the state was on the wrong track.

In the match-up for governor, Baker’s one-point edge over Coakley among likely voters included survey respondents who said they leaned toward one of the candidates. Without the leaning voters, Baker held a two-point advantage over Coakley among likely voters, 42 percent to 40 percent.

 Baker and Coakley have strong support within their respective parties, with 81 percent of likely voters who identify as Republicans supporting Baker and 78 percent of likely voters who identify as Democrats backing Coakley. But Baker holds a sizable lead over Coakley, 54 percent to 30 percent, among independent voters 

“Baker is trying to thread the needle as required for Republican candidates running for statewide office in Massachusetts,” Vercellotti said. “His core partisan base of Republicans, while strongly supporting him, is not enough for him to win. He has to build a significant lead among independent voters, and he has made progress in that area.”

Coakley, meanwhile, has an 11-point lead among female likely voters, but she trails Baker by 16 points among male likely voters. “Democratic candidates rely on that gender gap among women to put together a winning coalition, but Coakley needs to expand her lead among women and win over some of Baker’s male supporters to prevail,” Vercellotti said. 

Vercellotti said that the polling data did not uncover any measurable shifts in public opinion toward Baker after he addressed a female television reporter as “sweetheart” at a campaign event in Boston on Sept. 23, four days into the field period for the survey. “Although the incident garnered considerable attention in the news media and on social media, our polling results found no clear pattern of change in support for Baker from before to after the incident,” Vercellotti said. 

Although the survey found the race to be very close, likely voters said they expect Coakley to win the contest. When asked to set aside their own preference and predict the winner, 45 percent of likely voters said they expect Coakley to win, while 30 percent said Baker and 22 percent said they did not know. Even 28 percent of likely voters who said they support Baker predicted Coakley would win.

“Coakley came into the race perceived as a strong favorite to win, and that perception continues, even among a sizable chunk of Baker’s supporters,” Vercellotti said. “That is ironic, given how competitive the race has become. If polling continues to show a close race, we should see that aura of inevitability begin to crumble. Coakley obviously can take nothing for granted.”

Fifty-seven percent of likely voters who expressed a preference for governor said they are very sure of their choice, but 41 percent said they might change their minds before Election Day. Baker has a slightly stronger hold on his supporters, with 62 percent saying they are very sure and 37 percent saying they might change their minds. Among Coakley’s supporters, 56 percent said they are very sure, while 43 percent said they might change their minds. Independent voters, who tend to decide statewide elections in Massachusetts, were divided, with 52 percent saying they are very sure and 47 percent saying they might change their minds.

While the survey found a suspenseful race for governor, the poll found less drama in the race for the U.S. Senate. Democratic incumbent Ed Markey holds a 22-point lead over Republican Brian Herr among likely voters, 56 percent to 34 percent.

Markey’s favorability and unfavorability ratings have fluctuated by small amounts since he competed in a special election in June 2013 to serve the remainder of John Kerry’s term in the Senate. In the latest survey 37 percent of registered voters said they hold a favorable view of Markey and 32 percent hold an unfavorable view, compared to 39 percent favorable and 29 percent unfavorable in a Polling Institute survey conducted June 16 – 20, 2013.

Herr, on the other hand, is not that well known to voters. Sixty-nine percent of registered voters in the latest survey said they had not heard of Herr, and 14 percent said they had no opinion of him. Three percent of voters said they had a favorable view of Herr, and five percent said they had an unfavorable view.  

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.