Gap closes, but Menino well ahead

Poll suggests Flaherty made gains in popularity; Mayor resilient despite e-mail controversy

By Donovan Slack and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s support has slipped from the wear and tear of the most competitive reelection race of his political career, yet his personal popularity and voters’ satisfaction with the state of the city have allowed him to maintain a wide lead heading into the final stretch of the campaign, according to a Globe poll.

Menino holds a lead of 52 percent to 32 percent over Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty Jr., down from 61 percent to 23 percent in May, the poll indicated.

As Menino confronts a controversy over his administration’s handling of public records, he has seen his standing somewhat diminished, but it is still strong enough to be the envy of other elected officials.

Fully 66 percent of respondents approve of Menino’s performance as mayor, down from 73 percent in May. And 69 percent of the respondents view him favorably, compared with 74 percent in May. An overwhelming 78 percent of likely voters said they believe that Menino is somewhat or very effective at solving the city’s problems, and 62 percent say Boston is going in the right direction.

There is some good news in the poll for Flaherty. He has gained in popularity, with 50 percent of residents polled saying they view him favorably, up from 43 percent in May. Flaherty has also picked up support from 65 percent of voters who cast ballots for Councilor at Large Sam Yoon in the preliminary election, the poll suggested.

But the poll paints a portrait of Menino as an extraordinarily resilient political figure, whose long relationship with Boston voters, built over 16 years of attending ribbon-cuttings and neighborhood events, has helped him flourish even while fending off the rough-and-tumble attacks of the campaign. While voters have concerns - about schools, crime, city services - the poll suggested most think such worries are not enough to cause them to vote against Menino.

“The race has certainly tightened since May, as the campaign has heated up and Flaherty has gotten his campaign running, but the broader picture is that the voters of Boston still seem reluctant to change horses,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, which conducted the telephone poll of 553 randomly selected Boston residents between Oct. 10 and Oct. 15. Of that number, 438 said they were likely voters. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The results show Flaherty’s decision to campaign with Yoon and appoint him deputy mayor if he is elected seems to have had only a marginal effect on the race. Fifty-eight percent of residents polled said the alliance makes no difference to them, while only 24 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for Flaherty.

Smith said Flaherty faces a steep uphill battle closing the gap with Menino in the next 16 days.

“It’s not that Flaherty is unpopular or unattractive as a candidate,’’ Smith said. “It’s that he’s running against a very popular mayor.’’

Menino’s popularity stems in part from one remarkable fact: a whopping 60 percent of residents polled said they had met the mayor personally, up from 58 percent earlier this year and 54 percent in 2008. By contrast, only 26 percent of residents said they have met Flaherty.

There is room for Flaherty to gain ground against Menino over the next two weeks. Only 47 percent of respondents said they had “definitely decided’’ who they were voting for on Nov. 3, while 38 percent said they were still trying to decide.

Flaherty benefits from concern among some voters about Menino’s record tenure in office. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said the mayor’s decision to run for an unprecedented fifth term has made them less likely to vote for him. Only 21 percent said it makes them more likely to vote for him.

“I just think it’s time for fresh blood after four terms,’’ said poll respondent Peter H. Scholnick, a 60-year-old developer who lives in the Back Bay. “Nobody should be mayor for life.’’

Also hurting Menino is the ongoing investigation of the deletion of thousands of e-mails by top mayoral aide Michael J. Kineavy, in potential violation of state law. Sixty-eight percent of poll respondents said they have followed the issue somewhat or very closely and 34 percent said they are less likely to vote for Menino because of it.

“What really clinched it for me was this e-mail issue,’’ said Chris Miller, a 62-year-old retired postal worker from Brighton who plans to vote for Flaherty. “I’m not happy about that.’’

Boston residents said the most important problems facing the city are crime and violence, the quality of the schools, and jobs and the economy. The economy has faded somewhat as a concern; 14 percent of respondents cited it as among their top concerns, down from 23 percent in May.

The percentage who cited education as a top concern has risen, from 9 percent to 19 percent. Only 6 percent of those polled rated the schools as excellent, while 50 percent of residents with children said they had considered moving out of Boston because of the schools, up from 39 percent in May.

Although 70 percent of Boston residents said they felt very safe walking in their neighborhood during the day, only 32 percent felt that way at night. African-Americans, Hispanics, low-income residents, and those living in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury reported the most concern about crime.

“I get home from work at midnight a lot, and I’m afraid going in the house,’’ said poll respondent Michelle Lucas, a 48-year-old nurse from Dorchester. Still, Lucas is voting for Menino.

“I really like him,’’ said Lucas, adding that she has met Menino several times. “He does good things, and he seems honest.’’

Some of those polled gave poor marks to City Hall for its handling of constituent complaints. Despite Menino’s self-styled reputation as an “urban mechanic,’’ 35 percent of respondents said they had contacted City Hall for help or services in the past year, and more than half of them, 55 percent, rated the response they received as fair, poor, or very poor.

As on other issues, however, many voters seem prepared to forgive Menino the city’s faults.

“The city looks good, and I know the man he is, so why should I vote for these other folks that I don’t know?’’ said Georgia Feronberg, a 69-year-old retired receptionist who lives in the Uphams Corner section of Dorchester.

“I believe if I needed to see him I could get in to see him,’’ she said. “I believe if I needed help, he would give it, and I’m not certain about these other folks.’’

Donovan Slack can be reached at Michael Levenson can be reached at