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Patrick support plummets, poll finds

Faulted on economy, reforms; tough reelection fight ahead

By Frank Phillips and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 26, 2009

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Governor Deval Patrick, fresh off signing a major tax increase and still battling through a historic budget crisis, has seen a huge drop in his standing among Massachusetts voters and faces a tough road to a second term, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

The survey, taken 16 months before the election, shows that the public has lost faith in Patrick’s ability to handle the state’s fiscal problems or bring reform to Beacon Hill, as he had promised. He is either losing or running neck-and-neck in matchups with prospective rivals, according to the poll, conducted for the Globe by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Patrick’s favorability rating has dropped sharply over the past seven months, with just 36 percent of respondents holding a favorable opinion of him, and 52 percent viewing him unfavorably. As recently as December, 64 percent of voters viewed him favorably.

The governor’s job-approval rating, sampled after Patrick scored several major legislative victories but also approved $1 billion in new taxes, is even worse, with just 35 percent of respondents approving and 56 per cent disapproving of his performance. Just as ominously, 61 percent said the state is on the wrong track, compared with 31 percent who said it was headed in the right direction, down from 44 percent in December - numbers reminiscent of voters’ mood before Patrick captured the corner office from Republicans in 2006.

Even the state Legislature, traditionally held in low esteem by the public, won higher marks when voters were asked whom they trust more to manage the state budget crisis and faltering economy. Forty percent said they put more faith in state lawmakers to handle fiscal issues, compared with 23 percent for Patrick.

“These numbers indicate that Patrick is in a very difficult position regarding his reelection,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of the survey center. “Voters do not think he is up to the task of dealing with the state’s fiscal problems, and he has lost his mantle as a reformer.’’

The poll, conducted among 545 respondents statewide from July 15 to 21, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Patrick, the poll numbers suggest, is being blamed in part for the fallout from a global recession largely beyond his control. But even as Massachusetts approved this year’s budget without the political acrimony that has crippled states such as New York and California, polls around the country indicate that Patrick appears to be one of the least popular governors in the nation.

The potential matchups for the 2010 election illustrate the perilous political position of Patrick, who has said he will not govern on the basis of poll numbers.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who left the Democratic Party this month to plot a potential independent gubernatorial candidacy, runs even with the governor in a three-way race that includes a Republican candidate.

Cahill also has a much higher standing with the public: Forty-two percent of respondents say they view him favorably, compared with 17 percent who view him unfavorably; the rest said they did not know.

Without Cahill in the race, the poll indicates, Patrick runs behind or even with the two potential Republican contenders. The newest GOP entrant, former Harvard Pilgrim Health Care chief executive Charles D. Baker, tops Patrick 41 percent to 35 percent in a head-to-head matchup. Baker beats Patrick even though more than six in 10 respondents said they knew little about the Republican.

The other Republican candidate, former Turnpike Authority board member Christy Mihos, runs about even, getting 41 percent to Patrick’s 40 percent, even though nearly two in five respondents said they viewed Mihos unfavorably.

Patrick’s best hope at this point appears to be that Cahill and Baker both run. The governor’s core constituency remains highly educated, liberal Democrats and voters in Western Massachusetts, which could help form a big enough base if Baker and Cahill split many conservative Democrats, independents, and Republicans. Baker has the potential to cut into Cahill’s support among independents the more he introduces himself to voters.

Patrick’s formerly strong appeal to independents - the state’s largest voting bloc - has dropped sharply, with only 17 percent viewing him favorably. Nearly two-thirds say they have an unfavorable opinion.

Seven months ago, a Globe poll showed that 52 percent of independents viewed the governor favorably.

“I just somehow expected him to be more ready and have more of a plan in place by now than he does,’’ said one poll respondent, Norma George, a 71-year-old retired nurse from Duxbury.

George, an independent who voted for Patrick in 2006, thinks the governor has been too indecisive.

“It may not even be his fault,’’ she said. “But I’m just disappointed with the way things are moving, or lack thereof.’’

One of the most damaging findings in the poll for Patrick was that most Massachusetts residents do not believe he has brought change to Beacon Hill, a core tenet of his 2006 gubernatorial race and a key aspect of his political persona.

Patrick’s political advisers have hoped he would get a big boost from his recent signing of major overhauls of state ethics, transportation, and pension laws - all changes he championed.

But just 25 percent said they felt that Patrick has brought reform to state government, while 62 percent said he had not - including nearly half of Democrats.

The governor must try to recover his political standing in an economic environment that some state officials believe could worsen next year.

On a variety of issues - from taxes to funding for Greater Boston’s zoos - voters either disagree with Patrick or do not trust him.

New increases in the sales and other taxes, which the Legislature initiated but Patrick signed, are deeply unpopular, despite being passed to prevent deeper cuts to state and local services. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they object to the increases - and Patrick appears to be getting most of the blame.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents opposed the governor’s veto of $4 million in funding for Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham. State lawmakers may vote this week to override Patrick’s veto, and zoo officials have threatened to close unless the funding is restored.

But even as residents object to Patrick’s funding cuts for the zoos, few actually visit them. Three-fourths of those polled said they had not been to either zoo within the past two years.

A majority of respondents - 57 percent - said they support Patrick’s plan for casino gambling in three locations in Massachusetts, a slight increase from previous Globe polls. The public overwhelmingly wants resort casinos, which Patrick has pushed, over slot machines at racetracks, which House Speaker Robert DeLeo strongly favors. Sixty percent of respondents favored resort-style casinos, compared with 12 percent preferring slots at racetracks.

And despite Baker’s background at Harvard Pilgrim, voters at this point see Patrick as the best candidate on healthcare, though by a small margin.

Overall, though, voter antipathy for Patrick is clear. Asked, in an open-ended question, to name the biggest problem facing the state, about a third of respondents listed jobs and the economy. Strikingly, nearly 7 percent volunteered Patrick by name.

Massachusetts residents also apparently believe that one-party rule on Beacon Hill has not worked. After 16 years of Republican governors, Patrick’s 2006 victory brought Democratic dominance to the State House. But a plurality of voters surveyed - 46 percent - prefer divided government; even 28 percent of Democrats said so.

Among other political figures, Senator Edward M. Kennedy is viewed favorably by the most people - 60 percent of respondents. Senator John F. Kerry fared worse, with 46 percent viewing him favorably and 44 percent saying they had an unfavorable opinion of him. Attorney General Martha Coakley remains popular, with 56 percent of respondents viewing her favorably and just 15 percent viewing her unfavorably.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.