What’s trending in the Senate race, part two: what issues matter most to voters?

Read part one

Read our piece for Commonwealth Magazine’s Back Story

The horserace question – who’s winning and by how much – gets the biggest headlines in any election poll. But beneath the headline are findings that help to explain what issues are most important to voters in choosing a candidate.

Based on our poll this week for WBUR, voters seem to be saying that policy issues are more important to them than more general, personal qualities such as likability, time in Washington, and willingness to compromise. This is presents a significant challenge for Republican Gabriel Gomez, who has campaigned largely on these qualities and on more general issues like changing the culture in Washington.

Our latest WBUR poll asked voters how important eight issues were in deciding for whom to vote. Half were repeated from an October 2012 poll of the Warren-Brown Senate race, and half were new issues that have arisen in the course of this race. For the repeated issues, there was very little change of opinion between October 2012 and June 2013.

issues chart

 In both polls, sizable majorities of voters rated “which candidate will stand up for people like you” and “which candidate agrees with you on key issues that matter to you” as very important to their decision. Then there is considerable drop-off. Less than half of voters (44 percent) considered compromise with the other very important, and a candidate’s likability was not important to more than a third of voters in each poll. It appears that, when it comes to judging candidates on these four issues, the electorate is in much the same mindset as they were in 2012.

Voters had mixed opinions on the four new issues. Sixty percent of voters consider a candidate’s stance on women’s issues very important; 46 percent feel that way about environmental issues. A third (33 percent) feel it is very important that a candidate will vote with their political party – less than those who value compromise with the opposite party. Only 17 percent of voters felt that the number of years a candidate had spent in Washington was very important to their decision; a majority (51 percent) felt it was not important.

How do these factors translate into votes? On six of the eight issues tested, Markey has a lead among the voters who rated that issue as very important. And Markey leads on the issues that more voters consider important. Markey has a 26 point lead on Gomez among voters who value women’s issues, and a 30 percent lead with environmental-issue voters.

issue vote table

The only issues on which Gomez leads Markey are ones that less than a quarter of voters rate as very important. Gomez’s largest margin, 24 points, is among voters who care about candidate’s tenure in Washington, but those voters comprise only 17 percent of the electorate.

If he is to win, Gomez may have to consider shifting tactics to highlight specific issues on which he has more common with Massachusetts voters than does Markey. If the race is decided on the issues tested in this poll, Markey would seem to have the advantage. 

Gomez: No tea for me, thanks

Originally written for Back Story, a weekly email newsletter by Commonwealth Magazine.

In the 2010 special US Senate election, enthusiasm from the nascent Tea Party movement helped propel Scott Brown past Martha Coakley. In the 2013 special election, the Tea Party is nowhere to be found, and Gabriel Gomez isn’t exactly turning over rocks looking for it. To be sure, there is a whiff of Tea Party-style anti-establishmentarianism in Gomez’s plan to “Reboot Congress,” his digs at Markey’s decades-long tenure in Washington, and his Chevy Chase address. But Gomez’s  rhetoric about compromise is a far cry from Brown’s defiant promise to be the deciding vote against Obamacare in 2010.

Is Gomez missing an opportunity to rally the conservative base?  Perhaps, but our polling suggests openly courting the Tea Party in Massachusetts would come with a heavier political price this year than in 2010. The political dynamic has fundamentally shifted from 2010, when Brown was able to tap into Tea Party support without risking significant blowback from the unenrolled voters he needed to secure victory. Today, the Tea Party is a known (and largely disliked) quantity in Massachusetts, and by pursuing Tea Party support Gomez risks alienating the unenrolled voters and conservative Democrats he needs to catch Markey.

While not at its nadir (recorded in October 2012, during the presidential race), the Tea Party is far less popular in Massachusetts than it once was. The Tea Party is now seen favorably by just 22 percent of likely voters in the upcoming election, less than half the number who see the group favorably. This represents a sharp downturn from late 2010, when the movement was relatively new and less clearly defined as exclusively conservative.  At that time, slightly more Bay Staters held a favorable view (39 percent) of the Tea Party than unfavorable (38 percent). Among the all-important unenrolled voters, the ratio was 46 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable. In our new poll released this week, just a quarter of unenrolled voters view the Tea Party favorably, a 20 percent drop in just under 3 years.

tea party fav mass

tea party national fav

National polls on the question show a similar trend, and reach back a bit further. The earliest Tea Party poll on pollingreport.com was fielded the week before the Brown-Coakley election. It found a majority of registered voters nationally (58 percent) said they hadn’t heard enough about the Tea Party to form an opinion. With numbers like those, one could make the case that Scott Brown thrust the Tea Party into the national spotlight as much as the other way around.

Of course, ignoring the Tea Party and labeling oneself a new kind of Republican risks turning off other Republicans, and, according to our poll, Gomez may be doing just that. Only 80 percent of Republicans in our most recent poll plan to vote for him, on par with a series of other polls showing the same dynamic. By comparison, both Brown and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker carried 90 percent or more of the state’s Republicans in their respective elections.

If Gomez loses, he’ll be criticized by some in his party for failing to engage his base. But the polls suggest he may have little choice but to pursue his current strategy. The Tea Party in 2013 is simply not the Tea Party Scott Brown tapped into in 2010. And absent a groundswell of conservative enthusiasm and simultaneous support from unenrolled voters, it’s unclear how Gomez – or any Republican, including Brown – wins a statewide election in Massachusetts.

Update, June 24, 2013: Text and chart of Tea Party favorability in Massachusetts revised to include likely or registered voters from all polls. 

What’s trending in the Senate special election?

As our new poll for WBUR shows, the margin in the special election for U.S. Senate between Congressman Ed Markey and businessman Gabriel Gomez has not changed much. Markey leads Gomez 46-39 among likely voters, including leaning undecided voters. That’s very close to the 8-point (46-38) Markey lead we found in our last poll of the race, from early May.

The apparently stable nature of the race has led some observers, including Paul McMorrow of Commonwealth Magazine (published by MassINC), to opine that Gomez is running out of time to shake up the race and catch Markey.

The rest of this week, we are going to take a closer look at the race by dissecting our latest poll and some of our previous polls – both in this race and other recent Massachusetts election. Today, we start with a look at the two candidates’ favorability ratings.

Plotting the two candidates’ favorability across the polls we have done of the race reveals a general upward trend for both.

Markey favGomez fav

As to be expected, the veteran lawmaker Markey began the race as more of a known quantity than first-timer Gomez. Both men’s numbers (favorable and unfavorable) have increased as voters have become more familiar with each candidate. The biggest change for both occurred between the March poll seven weeks before the primary and the immediate post-primary poll. In that interval, Gomez went from being mostly unknown to being viewed favorably by 37 percent of voters — approaching Markey’s 43 percent figure.

Since then, the share of voters who view both candidates favorably has flattened, while the number with an unfavorable opinion of each has continued to rise. The percentage of voters who viewed Gomez unfavorably, in particular, grew 11 points between May and June. This is likely a result of negative campaigning and increased media scrutiny as the race has intensified.

There is also a significant gender gap between the two candidates. In the May poll, 44 percent of men but only 30 percent of women had a favorable view of Gomez. That gap persisted in the June poll — 47 percent of men versus 33 percent of women. Markey, on the other hand, fared equally well with both sexes in May (42 favorable with men, 43 with women), but has seen a 9 point gap open. In our latest poll, 46 percent of women have a favorable opinion of him, but his number among men dropped slightly, to 39 percent.

These dynamics translate into votes, and largely in Markey’s favor. In our latest poll, Gomez is winning the votes of men by 9 points (46-37), but Markey has a 20-point lead among women. Women are a larger share of both the population and the electorate than men, which amplifies the impact of Markey’s lead among women and diminishes the effect of Gomez’s lead among men.

Later this week, we’ll take a closer look at the qualities voters say matter most to them in a candidate – and how those preferences compare to what we found during the 2012 Senate campaign between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown.

WBUR Poll: Markey leads Gomez in senate special election

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Congressman Ed Markey leads Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez by 8 points (46/38) in a new WBUR poll conducted by The MassINC Polling Group. Both Markey (43/25) and Gomez (37/16) are viewed more favorably than unfavorably, but more than a quarter of voters (27 percent for Markey and 32 percent for Gomez) are undecided in their opinion of the candidates.

Poll: Mass. residents approve of response to bombings, favor aggressive response to future crises

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In the days after the arrest of the surviving Marathon bombing suspect, Massachusetts residents expressed a strongly positive impression of law enforcement and give their stamp of approve to the overall response to the attack. Ninety-one percent of respondents approved of the decision to lock down parts of the Greater Boston area while the second bombing suspect was at large on Friday, April 19, and 86 percent have a favorable opinion of the Massachusetts State Police.