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. 

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.