Patrick opens narrow lead, poll suggests

GOP’s energy may pose threat for governor

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / October 24, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick has opened a slim lead over Republican rival Charles D. Baker as the heated four-way governor’s race enters its final days, but a strong anti-incumbent mood, discouragement within Democratic ranks, and excitement among Republicans still threatens his bid for a second term, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

The survey of likely voters gave Patrick a four-point edge over Baker, 43 percent to 39 percent, while independent Timothy P. Cahill, the state treasurer and former Democrat, trailed far behind with 8 percent. Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein received 2 percent.

Voters also appear to be cooling to a ballot initiative to slash the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, which has stirred alarm on Beacon Hill because of the massive budget cuts that would result. Half of likely voters said they oppose the proposal, while 43 percent said they support it.

That’s a shift from a Globe poll last month, in which a plurality of voters said they favored the measure. Opponents have since aired a barrage of television and Internet ads warning of cuts that passage would bring.

With the exception of the attorney general’s race, in which incumbent Martha Coakleyleads Republican opponent James McKenna by a comfortable 21-point margin, contests for other constitutional offices are virtually tied.

In the governor’s race, Patrick’s narrow lead, though within the poll’s 4.3 percent margin of error, is an encouraging sign for the incumbent heading into the final full week of campaigning. The Globe poll a month ago had the race virtually tied, with Patrick at 35 percent and Baker at 34 percent.

In addition, Patrick’s standing among voters, which had dropped dramatically over the last couple years, has recovered, with the poll indicating for the first time since December 2008 that more people view him favorably than unfavorably. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they viewed him positively, with 43 percent expressing a negative opinion.

By contrast, Baker’s unfavorable rating has increased sharply, from 25 percent to 40 percent, since last month, while his favorable standing went from 31 percent to 38 percent.

The poll is the first since Baker entered the race last year in which more respondents said they viewed him unfavorably than favorably.

Patrick is also seen as more likable than Baker by a wide margin, 44 to 25 percent; just half of Baker supporters identified him as the most likable candidate. Voters are divided over whether they believe Baker or Patrick is the strongest leader and best identifies with people like them.

Baker’s drop in popularity comes amid a blitz of negative television ads, but it also could reflect political damage from the controversy over Cahill’s running mate and former aides abandoning the ticket to support the Republican campaign instead.

Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, which conducted the poll for the Globe, said the race continues to be a referendum on Patrick.

He said the governor’s low job-approval rating, 44 percent, would typically indicate that he faces an almost insurmountable hurdle; polling specialists say an incumbent usually needs at least a 46 percent job-approval rating to win reelection.

But Smith said there are several aspects of the race that give Patrick, once seen as politically dead even by many in his party, a solid chance of winning a second term. Cahill is still drawing enough support to be significant, the state continues to be heavily Democratic, and Baker has turned some voters off.

“Patrick may be able to weather the bad political storm Democrats are facing in Massachusetts and across the country,’’ Smith said.

The survey of 519 likely voters was taken Oct. 17-22.

Although last month’s Globe poll suggested that Cahill was drawing voters about equally from Baker and Patrick, the current poll suggests Cahill’s presence in the race could be hurting the Republican more. The sample size is small, but among Cahill voters, 46 percent said Baker was their second choice, and 22 percent said Patrick was.

Still, the findings show serious impediments for Patrick.

In addition to the governor’s low job-approval rating, Baker enjoys a wide margin among independent voters, the most sizable bloc in the state. And voters by a wide margin — 55 percent to 39 percent — believe the state is heading in the wrong direction, with many residents still out of work and worried about their economic future. That indicates a good portion of the electorate wants to change the leadership on Beacon Hill.

In another sign of strong anti-incumbent sentiment, 49 percent of respondents said that, overall, they want to see a new crop of leaders in Massachusetts and in Washington. Only 28 percent said they trust current officeholders.

Also working against Patrick — as with all Democratic incumbents — is the angst Democratic voters feel toward the election, which could lower the party’s turnout on Nov. 2. At the same time, there is a high level of excitement among Republicans and independents. The survey found that 43 percent of likely Democratic voters are depressed about the election, while 76 percent of the Republicans are excited.

In other races, Coakley, who suffered a stinging loss to Scott Brown in the special US Senate election in January, appears to have rebounded politically. Coakley easily outpaced McKenna, her largely unknown GOP opponent, 56 percent to 35 percent.

But the races for other constitutional offices are going down to the wire. Democrat Steven Grossman, a Newton businessman and longtime Democratic Party leader, is essentially tied with his GOP rival, Karyn Polito, a state representative from Shrewsbury, winning 39 percent to her 37 percent.

In the race for state auditor, Democrat Suzanne Bump, a former legislator and labor secretary in the Patrick administration, is in a dead heat with her GOP rival, Mary Z. Connaughton, a CPA and former Turnpike Authority board member. Bump drew 33 percent; Connaughton 32 percent.

Another antitax initiative on the ballot, a proposal to eliminate the sales tax on alcohol, also appears to be headed for defeat. A majority of respondents, 52 percent, said they opposed the tax cut, with 37 percent in favor.

Voters are largely unaware of a third question being put to voters, to repeal the state’s affordable housing law. Only 24 percent back the measure, 38 percent oppose it, and 38 percent said they didn’t know enough to say.

With Patrick heavily favored by Democrats and Baker getting most Republican votes, the contest is coming down to independents, who make up more than half the electorate. Among registered independents, Baker leads 47 to 33 percent.

One of those, Greg Reynolds, a 26-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq, said he is leaning toward voting for Baker. He voted for Patrick in 2006.

“I look at the budget deficit and am convinced we need a better financial plan,’’ said Reynolds, of Dighton.

“I look at Deval Patrick and I see spend and spend and more taxes.’’

But Lillian Edmondson, a 60-year-old Quincy resident, says she can’t support Baker because of his involvement in the Big Dig and his former tenure as a health insurance executive. Nor is she is taken by Cahill. So while she is not overjoyed with Patrick, she believes he is the “best of the two evils.’’

“I think he tries hard,’’ said Edmondson, an independent. “He comes across as a very nice man, he is very intelligent. He is more into facing the issues.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at