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Markey Holds Upper Hand in Closing Days of Senate Race

SUNDAY, JUNE 23, 2013 - 12:01 AM Polling Institute

Veteran congessman leads Gomez 49 percent to 41 percent in latest survey

With voters preparing to go to the polls on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey leads Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez by eight points in the race for the U.S. Senate, according to the latest survey from the Western New England University Polling Institute.

The telephone survey, which the Polling Institute conducted June 16-20, 2013 in partnership with MassLive.com, The Republican newspaper and television station WSHM CBS-3 in Springfield, found that Markey holds a sizable advantage among women and younger voters. Gomez leads among men and independent voters, but the advantages are not large enough to close the gap with Markey in the survey.

The survey of 566 likely voters found Markey, a Democrat, with support from 49 percent and Gomez, a Republican, with backing from 41 percent. Nine percent of likely voters said they were undecided, and one percent declined to reveal a preference in the race. Among all 653 registered voters in the sample, Markey leads Gomez by 12 points, 49 percent to 37 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points for the sample of likely voters and 3.8 percent for all registered voters.

Markey’s eight-point lead among likely voters includes both those who expressed an initial preference and those who said they were leaning toward one of the candidates. Without the leaning voters, Markey still holds an eight-point edge over Gomez among likely voters, 44 percent to 36 percent.

"Markey is in command at this point," said Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and a professor of political science at Western New England University. "In a special election surprises can happen, of course, but if you had to choose to be a candidate you’d want to be the one who is eight points ahead right now."

Voter preferences remain somewhat fluid ahead of Tuesday’s election. Among likely voters who expressed a preference for a candidate, 23 percent said they might change their minds before the election. But Gomez voters were more likely than Markey supporters to express uncertainty. More than one-quarter of Gomez supporters – 28 percent – said they might change their minds, compared to 18 percent of Markey supporters.

Vercellotti noted that the uncertainty in the race offers a marked contrast to the 2012 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Scott Brown. The Polling Institute’s final pre-election survey in that race, also conducted with MassLive.com and The Republican newspaper during the last full week of the campaign, found that only nine percent of voters who expressed a preference said they might change their minds. Those voters were roughly evenly distributed between Brown and Warren.

"The race between Gomez and Markey is different from the Brown-Warren race in a number of ways," Vercellotti said. "There is no presidential race at the top of the ticket to galvanize attention toward the election. Also, this has been essentially an eight-week campaign cycle between the primary and the special election. Brown and Warren had a much longer period of time in which to cultivate support. They also spent significantly more money appealing to voters."

This week’s special election allows voters to choose a senator to serve the remaining 17 months of John Kerry’s term. Kerry resigned from the seat to serve as secretary of state in the Obama administration. The latest poll results reflect a marked difference in public sentiment toward the special election compared to recent regularly scheduled elections in Massachusetts.

Among all registered voters, only 42 percent said they have "a lot" of interest in the election, compared to 82 percent in the Polling Institute’s final pre-election survey before the Nov. 6, 2012 presidential and Senate election, and 58 percent in the Polling Institute’s final pre-election survey before the Nov. 2, 2010 election for governor. In the latest survey, 28 percent of registered voters said they had little or no interest in the election, compared to seven percent of registered voters in 2012 and 15 percent of registered voters in 2010.

"There is no question that voter interest is down," Vercellotti said. "That makes it difficult to predict not only the amount of turnout, but which groups will turn out in the largest numbers on Tuesday."

The candidates’ favorability ratings indicate that, even with a condensed election cycle, the campaign has taken a toll on their standing with voters. Thirty-five percent of likely voters said they have a favorable view of Gomez, up 16 points from the Polling Institute’s last survey in the race, conducted April 11-18. But his unfavorability rating rose 21 points, to 30 percent, in the same period of time. Markey’s favorability rating rose three points to 42 percent from the April survey to the June survey. But his unfavorability rating also rose eight points to 32 percent.

The survey also found that large portions of the likely electorate still do not have an opinion of the candidates or don’t know of them. Twenty-six percent of likely voters said they had no opinion of Gomez, and seven percent said they had not heard of him. Twenty percent said they had no opinion of Markey, and six percent said they had not heard of him.

Vercellotti said the data could indicate that some likely voters are simply relying on party labels to make their decisions. "The other possibility is that some of the voters with no fixed views of the candidates will simply stay home on Tuesday," he added.

The race between Markey and Gomez has tightened since the Polling Institute’s April 11-18 survey, in which Markey held a 15-point lead over Gomez. Still, Markey maintains a hold on a large percentage of Democratic voters, and has built enough support among independent voters to remain ahead.

Markey, who was first elected to the House in 1976 from Malden, leads Gomez by a margin of 80 percent to 12 percent among likely voters who identify themselves as Democrats. Gomez leads Markey by 86 percent to seven percent among likely voters who identify themselves as Republicans, and by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent among self-identified independent voters.

Vercellotti noted that, in order for a Republican to win statewide office, the candidate needs to overcome the Democrats’ three to one registration advantage over Republicans by building a big lead among independent voters. "Gomez leads among independents, but not by a large enough margin to close the gap with Markey." 

Voter preferences also are following a familiar pattern by gender, with men tending to favor the Republican candidate and women supporting the Democrat. But the patterns are still working in Markey’s favor.  Gomez leads Markey by 12 points among men, 51 percent to 39 percent, but Markey is ahead of Gomez by 24 points among women, 57 percent to 33 percent.

"The results may reflect the impact of Markey’s ads and debate performances, in which he has raised questions about Gomez’s policy positions relating to abortion and health insurance coverage for contraception," Vercellotti said. "These issues may be resonating with women."

Voter preferences also vary by age and education, with Markey running strongest among younger voters and voters with a high school diploma or less.  Markey leads Gomez 59 percent to 32 percent among voters ages 18 to 34, trails Gomez 51 percent to 40 percent among voters ages 35 to 49, and holds a 13-point lead over Gomez in the higher age categories.

Among voters with a high school diploma or less, Markey is ahead of Gomez by 17 points, 52 percent to 35 percent. The candidates are virtually tied among voters with some college education, while Markey has a seven-point lead among college graduates.

Vercellotti noted that while Markey holds sizable leads among younger voters and voters with a high school diploma or less, voter turnout typically is higher among older and better educated voters, especially in elections outside of a presidential election cycle.

"Whether these groups will turn out insignificant numbers in an off-year special election in the summer is an open question," he said. "The campaigns’ and parties' voter mobilization efforts on Tuesday will make all the difference."

The economy continues to be the factor cited most often as voters identify the issue most important to them in choosing a candidate for Senate. Twenty-two percent of likely voters pointed to the economy, compared to 31 percent in the April 11-18 survey. The morals, ethics and personal integrity of the candidate was the second most frequently cited factor, getting a nod from 10 percent of voters compared to five percent in April. In third place was the party of the candidate, with seven percent, up from 4 percent in the April survey. The remaining responses were spread across 15 issues with no one issue receiving mention from more than five percent of voters.

"Voters have a wide variety of concerns heading into the special election," Vercellotti said. "No one issue seems to have captured the public’s attention in this cycle. That may be a reflection of the compressed calendar for this election, or an indicator that the candidates have not identified one overriding issue that resonates with voters."

The survey also found that President Barack Obama remains popular in Massachusetts, with a job approval rating of 54 percent among likely voters, and a disapproval rating of 40 percent. Obama’s job approval dropped four points in the latest survey, from 58 percent among likely voters in the Polling Institute’s Oct. 26 – Nov. 1 survey. His disapproval rating has increased by two points.

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.