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Democrats Out in Front Early in Governor's Race

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2013 - 12:01 AM Polling Institute

Poll finds Coakley, Grossman lead Republican Baker in 2014 match-ups

As the field of candidates for governor of Massachusetts takes shape, Democrats hold an early edge, according to the latest telephone survey from the Western New England University Polling Institute.

The statewide survey of 431 registered voters, conducted Oct. 1-7, found that state Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman, both Democrats, lead Republican Charles Baker by double digits in hypothetical match-ups in the 2014 race for governor.

Coakley leads Baker, the 2010 Republican nominee for governor, by a margin of 54 percent to 34 percent among registered voters, with 10 percent undecided and two percent declining to indicate a preference. Grossman leads Baker 43 percent to 30 percent, with a sizable number of voters – 25 percent –saying they are undecided when asked to choose between the two men. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and a professor of political science at Western New England University, cautioned that, with 13 months to go until Massachusetts voters choose a governor, the latest poll results are snapshots of an electoral landscape that could very easily change.

"These numbers provide benchmarks against which to compare future surveys in the contest," Vercellotti said. "There’s no question that Democrats hold an early advantage, but 13 months is an eternity in politics and a lot can happen during that time."

Coakley and Grossman, both of whom have run for statewide office in the past, are the best known of the declared and possible Democratic candidates for governor. Fifty-two percent of voters said they have a favorable view of Coakley, while 27 percent said they have an unfavorable view, 13 percent said they have no opinion and six percent said they had not heard of her.

Grossman, despite having won election as state treasurer in 2010, is less well-known. Twenty-two percent of voters said they have a favorable view of him, while 10 percent said they have an unfavorable view, and nearly two-thirds of voters – 63 percent – either have not heard of Grossman or could not offer an assessment of him.

The other candidates in the field for the Democratic nomination for governor are still virtually unknown, with favorability ratings of six to eight percent and unfavorability ratings of three to seven percent. More than three-quarters of voters said they had not heard of or could not offer an opinion about Joe Avellone, a pharmaceutical executive and former selectman in Wellesley; Don Berwick, a former administrator for Medicare and Medicaid; Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, and state Senator Dan Wolf.

Wolf, one of the owners of Cape Air, a regional airline that has a contract with the Massachusetts Port Authority to serve Logan International Airport, has suspended his campaign while he awaits a final decision from the state Ethics Commission as to whether his ownership stake poses a conflict of interest for a state senator and candidate for governor. Despite press coverage of the issue, Wolf is still relatively unknown, with only eight percent of voters offering a favorable view and seven percent holding an unfavorable view of him.

Baker, a venture capitalist and former health care executive who served in the cabinets of Republican governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, has a favorability rating of 26 percent in the latest survey, with 14 percent of voters holding an unfavorable view, 31 percent saying they have not heard of him and 25 percent saying they have no opinion. Governor Deval Patrick defeated Baker by a margin of 48 percent to 42 percent to win a second term in 2010. Patrick has decided not to seek re-election next year.

Baker, in a hypothetical match-up against Coakley, faces the typical challenges that await Republican candidates for statewide office in Massachusetts. With Republicans making up only about 11 percent of the electorate, Republican candidates have to capture a large percentage of the independent vote, which accounts for more than half of all voters in Massachusetts.

Coakley leads Baker by a margin of 49 percent to 39 percent among voters who identify themselves as independents, according to the survey. Coakley also wins support from 76 percent of Democrats, while 84 percent of Republicans said they favor Baker.

Coakley leads Baker by more than 30 points among women – 61 percent to 30 percent – and among men by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent.

But Coakley has enjoyed large leads in the past, only to see them disappear. In the January 2010 special election to fill the remainder of the U.S. Senate term of the late Edward Kennedy, Coakley lost to Republican Scott Brown by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent. Coakley had led Brown by 26 points in a Polling Institute survey conducted three months before the special election.

"It is fair to say that no one in the field of candidates for governor knows better than Martha Coakley that you can’t bank on large leads in the polls, especially this early in the race," Vercellotti said.

Baker fares better in the hypothetical match-up against Grossman. Although Grossman leads Baker 43 percent to 30 percent among registered voters, Baker runs ahead of Grossman among independent voters by a margin of 37 percent to 32 percent, with 29 percent undecided.

Vercellotti said that the large number of undecided voters in the Baker-Grossman match-up suggests voter preferences are soft this early in the race. He added that, even in the Coakley-Baker matchup, with 10 percent undecided, voters may simply be relying on name recognition when indicating whom they would support this far out from the election.

"The candidates have barely begun to make their case to voters," Vercellotti said. "The poll results simply reflect the current state of the race, and are not necessarily predictions of what will happen in November 2014."

The governor’s race begins against a backdrop of relative voter optimism in Massachusetts. More than half of voters in the survey – 56 percent – said the state is headed in the right direction, up from about one-third of voters in previous Polling Institute surveys in 2010 and 2008.

Thirty-three percent of adults and 35 percent of voters say the economy is the most important problem facing the state, down from 53 percent of adults in April 2010 and 60 percent of adults in March 2009. Twelve percent of registered voters cited taxes or government spending as the most important problem in the latest survey, while 11 percent pointed to education and eight percent cited health care.

Sixty-two percent of adults and 64 percent of voters said they approve of the job that Patrick is doing as governor. Patrick’s job approval in Polling Institute surveys has ranged from 34 percent in April 2010, during the last gubernatorial campaign, to 54 percent in March 2011, after he began his second term.

Vercellotti noted that the measure of Patrick’s job approval in the latest survey came just after questions about the partial shutdown of the federal government in Washington. The question measuring voters’ assessments of the current direction of the state followed questions about the 2014 race for governor.

"We may be in an era of good feelings, so to speak, about the current state of affairs in Massachusetts,” Vercellotti said. “Or, voters may simply see the state in a more positive light when they contrast what is happening here with the events that are unfolding in Washington."

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.