Coakley leads, but electorate unsettled

In Globe poll, 50 percent remain undecided; Capuano running 2d, but far behind AG

By Frank Phillips and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 22, 2009

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Attorney General Martha Coakley has a solid lead in the four-way Democratic race for the open US Senate seat, but with just 16 days until the primary election, nearly three-quarters of likely voters have yet to decide who they will support, according to a Globe poll.

Coakley gets the support of 43 percent of respondents when asked who they would vote for if the primary were held today. US Representative Michael Capuano has support from 22 percent of the likely voters; Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca from 15 percent, and City Year cofounder Alan Khazei from 6 percent.

The poll indicates Coakley is in a position of formidable strength among the state’s likely Democratic primary voters. Fully 71 percent of the respondents viewed Coakley favorably. She is by far the best-known candidate, with 91 percent name recognition.

She is the candidate the likely voters see as the most qualified, best able to understand the problems of people like them, most desirable to have a beer with, and most likely to win.

“Things could change, but it would have to go really sour for her over the next few weeks,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of the Survey Center at the Uni versity of New Hampshire, which conducted the poll.

The poll also shows an undecided electorate, which could translate into a volatile home stretch. Only 26 percent of respondents said they had definitely settled on whom they would support on Dec. 8; another 24 percent said they are leaning toward a candidate. Fifty percent described themselves as uncertain.

The poll, conducted Nov. 13 to 18, queried 537 randomly selected likely Democratic primary voters - Massachusetts residents who say they are registered voters, have a history of voting in Democratic primaries, and intend to vote in the special election primary next month. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The poll results contain a measure of good news for two of Coakley’s rivals - Capuano and Pagliuca.

Capuano is in second place, and his emphasis on his experience as a congressman and political insider appears to help him. Experience on Capitol Hill is viewed as a plus by 43 percent of voters, and a minus by only 10 percent. And the likely voters said they see Capuano as the best candidate to handle the war in Afghanistan.

“He is an insider, but he is not like the normal insiders in Washington,’’ said Robert Fleischer of Groton, a 61-year-old software engineer who was interviewed for the poll. He said Capuano reflected his political positions and values, but said he also thinks the other three are good candidates as well. “The difference is between an insider mind-set and someone who has experience working there.’’

Pagliuca, a wealthy businessman, is running third, which can’t be good news for a candidate who has vastly outspent his rivals. Respondents to the Globe poll see him as the best candidate to improve the economy - seen as the second-most significant issue in the race after health care. And 39 percent of voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate with extensive business experience, while just 10 percent said such experience would make them less likely to back such a candidate.

The poll had little good news for Khazei. He hardly cracks 10 percent among any demographic group. He has also made a point of courting young voters, yet his lowest amount of support came from those 35 or under. Only 4 percent of likely voters thought he would be the best at handling health care reform; 3 percent thought he’d be the best on Afghanistan; and 4 percent thought he’d be the best at improving the economy.

A major hurdle for Coakley’s rivals is the attorney general’s high standing with all segments of likely primary voters. She is the second choice among supporters of every other candidate. Coakley’s 71 percent favorability ratings dwarf those of the other candidates. Capuano, her nearest rival, is viewed favorably by 56 percent of voters, and unfavorably by 14 percent. Pagliuca, who was virtually unknown before he spent $4 million introducing himself with a two-month blitz of television advertising, is viewed favorably by 40 percent of likely voters, and unfavorably by 22 percent. Khazei is unknown to half the primary voters, and of those who do know him, 28 percent give him a favorable rating, 12 percent unfavorable.

The poll’s findings challenge the conventional wisdom that Coakley is the front-runner because she is the only woman on the race.

There is a segment of the electorate that wants to vote for Coakley because she’s a woman - 16 percent say they prefer to vote for a woman - but more than 8 in 10 of those surveyed said the sex of the candidate had no bearing on their choice.

The survey findings come as the campaign to fill the seat long held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy heads into a final two-week stretch in which the candidates will have their last chance to shake up the dynamic of what has been a low-key race, particularly for such high profile office. Smith predicted that just 25 percent of registered voters would participate in the primary election.

The contest is expected to intensify in the coming days, particularly after Thanksgiving, when the four Democrats are scheduled to square off in back to back televised debates Dec. 1 and 2.

The poll found likely voters divided over the one major policy difference in the campaign thus far: Coakley and Capuano say they will not support health care legislation that bars insurance payments for abortion, while Pagliuca and Khazei say their support for a health care overhaul is not contingent on that provision. In the poll, 43 percent said the measure should pass even with the abortion language; 32 percent said it should not.

“It’s a pretty lame excuse for backing out of voting for a hugely important piece of legislation,’’ said Howard A. Dickstein, a 51-year-old financial planner from Longmeadow, who was interviewed for the survey. “That’s just posturing for groups,’’ said Dickstein, an independent who said he intends to vote but has not chosen a candidate yet.

The poll found that Coakley is viewed as the candidate best able to handle health care reform.

Though 8 out of 10 respondents said that candidates should not take special-interest money, the issue appears not to be a decisive one for likely voters. The two candidates who accept PAC money, Coakley and Capuano, are ahead of the two candidates who do not, Pagliuca and Khazei.

The candidates’ attempt to tie themselves to Kennedy’s legacy appears to be a good strategy, with 40 percent of the voters saying it is very important that a candidate share the late senator’s values. Another 37 percent say it is somewhat important and only 22 percent say it is not important.

In addition, Khazei is not getting a lot of traction from his role as a social entrepreneur. Just 27 percent of the likely voters said they would be more likely to support a candidate with extensive experience in nonprofit organizations, while 56 percent said it would make no difference.