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Patrick leads, but Baker surging

Support slumps for Cahill in poll; tighter race reflects uneasy electorate

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / June 27, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick has improved his political standing in recent months but still faces major hurdles in his bid for reelection, according to a new Boston Globe poll, which shows Republican rival Charles D. Baker gaining ground and many voters dissatisfied with the direction of the state and the governor’s handling of his job.

Patrick won the support of 38 percent of likely voters in the survey, while Baker, who is still unknown to much of the electorate, received 31 percent. State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, a former Democrat running as an independent, trailed far behind with 9 percent. Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein received 2 percent.

The findings suggest that Republican attempts to marginalize Cahill through negative ads have helped reshape the race into a two-person contest, at least for now. Cahill, who led Baker in a January Globe poll, has seen his support collapse after television and radio spots by the Republican Governors Association attacking his ethics and record as treasurer.

“The Republican strategy to make this a race between Baker and Patrick seems to be working,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll for the Globe.

Smith said both Baker and Patrick have recaptured support from party voters who had earlier been leaning toward Cahill. Baker’s surge has been particularly strong, up from 19 percent in the earlier Globe poll.

“That is important particularly for Baker because he has to solidify the Republican base to mount a strong campaign against the governor,’’ he said.

The poll of 558 adults — including 497 likely voters — was conducted June 17-23. The sample of likely voters, who were polled on their gubernatorial preferences, has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points; the full sample has a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Despite some improvement, the poll indicates Patrick is suffering from anti-incumbent sentiment — reflected especially in concerns over illegal immigration and the economy — that could sway races up and down the ballot this fall. Only 28 percent of those surveyed said they trusted current state and federal leaders, while 50 percent said they wanted a new crop.

“We need to send a wake-up call to Washington and to Beacon Hill,’’ said Winnie Miller, a 68-year-old retired social worker from Leicester interviewed for the poll.

Miller, an unenrolled voter, said she supports Baker, although she knows little about him. She said Patrick has not done enough to deal with unemployment, crack down on illegal immigration, or rein in spending.

“Enough is enough. Spending has gone crazy in Massachusetts,’’ she said.

Patrick has gained ground, moving up eight percentage points from the 30 percent he received in a poll six months ago. Voters also said they trusted Patrick and the Legislature to handle the state budget about evenly, a vast improvement from a year ago, when lawmakers got far better marks.

But other barometers of the governor’s popularity — job performance, favorability rating, and opinions on what direction the state is headed — indicate that his standing with voters is still shaky.

Forty-two percent of respondents said they approve of the job Patrick is doing, while 49 percent disapprove; pollsters consider a 46 percent job approval rating necessary for an incumbent to win reelection, although the figure may be slightly lower in a three- or four-way race. The governor’s numbers, however, have improved markedly from a year ago, when a Globe poll found 35 percent of respondents expressing approval of Patrick’s job performance, with 56 percent disapproving.

Roger Shea, a government professor at Massasoit Community College who lives in Abington and was interviewed for the poll, is a Democrat who voted for Patrick in 2006. He said his attitude toward the governor has improved, and that he is now leaning toward supporting him.

“A year ago, I was more down on him,’’ Shea said, explaining that his feelings on the governor shifted more positively when he observed the way he handled the large water main break in May.

Shea added that he finds nothing he likes in the messages from Cahill or Baker, but that he still has reservations about Patrick, wishing he showed more leadership.

Voters, by a huge margin, cited the economy and unemployment as the most important problem facing the state — 43 percent of those surveyed cited that issue above all. Another 17 percent cited the state budget and state spending.

Illegal immigration was barely mentioned when voters were asked to name the issue that concerns them most. However, 85 percent of respondents said illegal immigration was a “very serious’’ or “somewhat serious’’ problem facing the country. A majority said they feel strongly that the state should do more to ensure that people here illegally do not receive public benefits.

Only a slim majority said they support expanded gambling, the subject of fierce debate on Beacon Hill, and those supporters are split over the two major plans under consideration. The Senate approach, which would license three casino resorts, was supported by 27 percent, while 22 percent said they preferred a House proposal to license two casinos and allow slot machines at the state’s four racetracks. Nearly a third of respondents said they oppose expanded gambling. Seven in 10 said they had not visited a casino in the past year.

In a significant sign of voter discontent, only 40 percent of respondents think Massachusetts is headed in the right direction, while 49 percent think things are off track. The good news for Patrick is that views on the state’s direction have improved as the economy has picked up. In a Globe poll last summer, 31 percent thought Massachusetts was headed in the right direction, with 61 percent saying it was off-course.

Patrick can also take some comfort in the improvements in his favorability rating. Forty-three percent of respondents said they view him favorably, 45 percent view him unfavorably, and 12 percent are neutral. That is better than last July, when 36 percent said they liked him, and 52 percent said they did not. But it is a huge drop in popularity from December 2008, when a Globe poll showed him with a 64 percent favorable rating.

What’s more, Patrick’s efforts to present himself as a reformer are not getting much traction. One of the governor’s central campaign themes is that he led State House efforts to overhaul transportation agencies, ethics and pension laws, and spending on police details. But only 28 percent of poll respondents agree that he has brought changes to Beacon Hill, while 55 percent said they disagreed.

Baker is still largely unknown, but those who do know him are evenly divided. Twenty percent of respondents said they view him favorably, compared with 20 percent who see him unfavorably, and 16 percent who are neutral. Nearly half, 45 percent, said they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. Thirty percent of respondents said Baker’s tenure as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim, a major health insurer, makes them less likely to vote for him, but a plurality, 37 percent, said it makes little difference.

Cahill, meanwhile, has suffered a steep drop in his popularity from a year ago, when 42 percent of those surveyed viewed him favorably, compared with 17 percent unfavorably. Now, 30 percent of respondents view him unfavorably, compared with 21 percent favorably.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a designer's error, a Page One chart accompanying a story in yesterday's Globe on the race for Massachusetts governor misstated the organization that conducted the poll upon which the chart was based. The poll was conducted by the Survey Center of the University of New Hampshire.

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