Baker catches Patrick in new poll

Voters focusing on economy; Cahill’s effect on race unclear

By Frank Phillips and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 26, 2010

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With just five weeks to the election, Republican Charles D. Baker has pulled even with Governor Deval Patrick in a gubernatorial race shaped by anti-incumbent sentiment and unusually high excitement among Republican voters, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

The poll results also suggest that independent Timothy P. Cahill is pulling voters equally from Baker and Patrick, raising questions about the conventional political thinking that his candidacy is undercutting Baker’s chance to defeat the governor in the Nov. 2 election.

In the Globe poll, taken last week, Patrick, a Democrat, won support from 35 percent of likely voters, compared with 34 percent for Baker, a statistical tie given the poll’s margin of error. Cahill, the state treasurer who left the Democratic Party last year, continued to lag far behind with 11 percent. Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein got 4 percent, and 14 percent said they remain undecided.

Patrick has lost ground to Baker since the Globe last surveyed voters in June, when the governor led his Republican challenger, 38 to 31 percent. Cahill, damaged by negative ads from the Republican Governors Association, is having difficulty climbing back into a race in which he was once a major contender. His standing improved slightly from June, when he won the support of 9 percent of poll respondents.

The poll indicates that voter turnout on Election Day will be key. The current trend favors Baker, because Republicans are much more enthusiastic about the election than Democrats. Some 78 percent of likely GOP voters say they are excited about the race, compared with only 37 percent of likely Democratic voters. Among the subset of 245 voters surveyed who said they were excited about the race, Baker beat Patrick, 52 to 25 percent.

“The energy in this election is certainly on the Republican side,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll for the Globe.

That excitement is likely to drive Baker supporters to the polls, while Democrats could see a lower turnout than in past elections, Smith said.

“That spells trouble for Patrick,’’ he said.

The poll of 522 Massachusetts adults — 471 of whom were likely voters — was taken Sept. 17-22. The likely voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points; the full sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Smith said that one of the most significant findings — especially damaging to Patrick as he celebrates the state’s recent economic gains — is that voters are still pessimistic about the direction of the state’s economy. More than half of respondents, 59 percent, cited jobs and the economy as the most important problem facing Massachusetts, far more than any other issue.

The intense voter focus on the economy makes it tough for Patrick to advance his case that Massachusetts is on a path to recovery — and at a faster clip than the rest of the country. Indeed, 41 percent of those polled said they are worse off now than they were a year ago, even though Massachusetts has been adding jobs for months; 36 percent said they are coping about the same, and 21 percent said they are better off.

Only 40 percent said the state is going in the right direction, while 50 percent disagreed. Those numbers remains unchanged since the June poll, although they are an improvement from July 2009, when Patrick’s popularity was at its lowest.

The poll indicates that Patrick’s standing with voters, which seemed to be improving in polls taken earlier this year, has plateaued. Voters hold largely the same opinion of him as they did in June — 42 percent of poll respondents this time said they viewed him favorably, compared with 43 percent who see him unfavorably.

Patrick’s appeal to unenrolled voters is perilously low. Only 24 percent of self-described independents have a favorable opinion of the governor, compared with 59 percent who view him unfavorably.

Patrick has other hurdles, notably a prevailing anti-incumbent mood. A majority of likely voters polled, 52 percent, said they want a new group of leaders in Washington and Massachusetts; only 29 percent said they trust the current leadership. Patrick’s job approval rating continues to remains low, as well. Only 40 percent of likely voters say they approve of the job he is doing, while 48 percent disapprove.

The GOP strategy of attacking Cahill has clearly helped erode his support, but those who remain supporters are split when asked their second choice. The sample of Cahill voters was relatively small, but 39 percent said Patrick was their second choice, while 35 percent chose Baker. Those findings highlight the potential significance of Stein’s candidacy, which in a tight race could draw crucial percentage points from Patrick’s tally.

Baker’s strength appears to rest on his appeal to unenrolled, or independent, voters, who make up more than 50 percent of the electorate and often determine statewide races. Among registered independents, he leads Patrick 35 percent to 28 percent, with Cahill getting 13 percent.

But Baker’s pitch that he is better equipped to handle state finances has brought mixed results, the poll suggests. With a $2 billion deficit looming next year, voters are divided over whom they trust to handle budget and fiscal problems. Thirty-one percent said they trust Patrick on the issue — the exact same level of support won by Baker, who spent four years as state budget chief under two Republican governors in the 1990s.

Baker enjoys the best favorability rating among the three major candidates, although not by a wide margin. Thirty-one percent said they viewed him favorably, 25 percent viewed him negatively, 14 percent were neutral, and 30 percent said they didn’t know enough to say.

One potential drag on Baker, who has adopted an angry tone in his appeals to disgruntled voters, is his likability. Not even a majority of Baker’s own supporters — just 44 percent — identified him as the most likable candidate, compared with 71 percent of Patrick’s supporters who identified the governor as the most likeable. Among all likely voters, Patrick was by far the most likable, followed by Baker, and then Cahill. The governor is also considered the most in touch with voters and the strongest leader, while Baker is seen as most likely to bring change.

Patrick’s likability could help swing voters open to changing their minds. Thomas R. Collaro, an investigator with the federal Department of Agriculture, said he is leaning toward Baker but his second choice is Patrick. He said he does not agree with Patrick on education and feels the sales tax increase, signed by the governor last year, was “a bit too much.’’

“I find Baker something different,’’ said Collaro, a registered Independent. “Massachusetts seems to perform better with a Republican governor.’’

Facing a barrage of TV ads and debates, some voters are feeling whiplashed. Janet O’Hara, a registered Democrat who told a survey interviewer she would vote for Baker, said in a follow-up interview that she had changed her mind after watching the heated debate among the four candidates Tuesday night. She said she was turned off by the anger she said Baker projected and his failure to directly answer questions.

“Now I am leaning toward Cahill, but I liked Stein and will even look at Deval,’’ said O’Hara, a Patrick voter in 2006 who was laid off from her job last year and is now starting a consulting business.

Despite the broad dissatisfaction with incumbents, Democrats still held a significant advantage over Republicans when voters were asked which party they would choose in elections for Congress and the state House.

Forty-five percent said they will vote for the Democratic candidate for US House, compared with 34 percent who said they will vote Republican, and 19 percent who were undecided. But among voters in Southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape, and the Islands, which has a spirited race for an open congressional seat, voters were equally divided, with 41 percent saying they will vote Democratic and 41 percent saying they will vote Republican.

In other statewide races, Democrats have an edge over their Republican competitors. Democrat Steve Grossman, a former party leader and businessman, won support from 40 percent of likely voters, compared with 30 percent for Republican Karyn Polito, a state lawmaker. In the race for auditor, Democrat Suzanne Bump, a former Patrick Cabinet official, narrowly led Republican Mary Connaughton, a former Turnpike Authority board member, 33 percent to 29 percent.

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