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Brown’s support high, but slipping

Poll also finds majority favor more gambling

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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Senator Scott Brown remains the most popular major political figure in Massachusetts, but his approval rating has fallen from a year ago, a sign he may be more vulnerable than anticipated as he gears up for a reelection fight, according to a Boston Globe poll.

The poll also found that a majority of respondents, 53 percent, support efforts to expand gambling in the state, while 40 percent oppose them. The issue has become Beacon Hill’s highest priority and is expected to be debated in the House next week. But support among residents surveyed does not appear to have changed since last January, when poll results were nearly identical.

Though Brown, who faces reelection next year, has fallen a bit from the lofty perch of public approval he had enjoyed, he remains quite popular for a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state. Nearly half of respondents, 49 percent, said they view him favorably, compared with 26 percent who view him unfavorably. A Globe poll conducted last September showed him with 58 percent approval and 21 percent disapproval.

“He’s really a fish out of water in a Massachusetts environment - any Republican is,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, who conducted the Globe poll. “He actually is doing pretty well, given that environment.’’

The telephone poll of 500 randomly selected adults was conducted between Aug. 20 and Aug. 31 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Smith attributes some of Brown’s drop in popularity to timing. When the Globe polled last year, voters were preparing for midterm elections, and partisanship and anger at Democrats was especially high.

Brown now faces challenges from a number of Democrats, though thus far no high-profile elected official has indicated an intention to take him on. US Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, who pursued the seat two years ago, said last week that he will not challenge Brown. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor and former Obama administration official, told the Globe last week she is considering a run.

Warren, the choice of many Washington Democrats and some state party insiders to face off against Brown, remains unknown to large swaths of the voting public, according to the poll. While those who know of her tend to like her - 23 percent rate her favorably, 12 percent unfavorably - 60 percent said they don’t know who she is or have no opinion of her.

“If she’s going to be the candidate, she’s going to have to do a lot of work just to boost name recognition,’’ Smith said.

Warren said she will decide shortly whether to enter the Democratic primary field that already includes six candidates: Alan Khazei, cofounder of City Year; Setti Warren, mayor of Newton; Bob Massie, a former candidate for lieutenant governor; Thomas P. Conroy, a legislator; Marisa DeFranco, a lawyer; and Herb Robinson, a software engineer.

The Globe poll reinforces the belief among some political analysts that Democratic contenders start with built-in advantages in Massachusetts and that almost any candidate who draws strong party support could forge a credible challenge to Brown.

Brown will need to capture the votes of independents and moderate Democrats who helped propel him to victory in the special election in January 2010. The poll suggested he continues to have relatively strong support among self-identified independents, with 44 percent viewing him favorably and 19 percent viewing him unfavorably. But a large portion, 37 percent, were either neutral or did not offer any opinion.

But even as candidates are aggressively courting donors and political leaders, few voters pay close attention to a Senate election until the final weeks. According to the poll, just 8 percent of voters have a strong conviction about who they will choose next year and only 14 percent are leaning toward a candidate.

“I will vote for Brown, so far,’’ said William Powers, a 50-year-old unemployed former government worker from Springfield who responded to the Globe’s poll. “Of course, we don’t know who the challengers are.’’

Powers, who said he is not enrolled in a political party, said he voted for Brown in last year’s special election because Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democrat in the race, acted like she was entitled to the seat and did not campaign vigorously enough. He said he believes Brown has done a good job of walking a “real tightrope’’ between the interests of the national Republican Party and the pressures of a liberal state.

Another respondent, 70-year-old Maureen Perkins of Amesbury, said she voted for Coakley last year. But Perkins, a Democrat, said she has a sense that Brown does not always follow the party line, something she finds appealing even if she cannot recall specific instances in which he crossed the aisle.

“I think he has done a good job,’’ she said.

Like Powers, she said she will take a strong look at all the Democrats before making her choice.

The Massachusetts political figure who scored the highest percentage of people viewing him favorably was Senator John Kerry, with 52 percent. But he also had a relatively high number of people who viewed him unfavorably, 34 percent, bringing his net favorability rating - which pollsters believe to be the most reliable measure of popularity - to 18 percent. Brown’s net favorability rating is 23 percent.

Higher voter turnout for the presidential election next year could add a dynamic that was not present in the 2010 special election to fill the Senate seat. At the top of the Democratic ticket, President Obama remains relatively popular in the state despite lackluster ratings nationally. He was rated favorably by 54 percent of respondents, compared with 39 percent who rated him unfavorably. Last month, a Gallup state-by-state poll showed similar results and ranked Massachusetts behind only four other states and the District of Columbia in its fealty to Obama.

Obama is more popular than Governor Deval Patrick, who was rated favorably by 45 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 38 percent. The governor’s popularity has gone through wide swings - from December 2007 when 64 percent viewed him favorably to a low of 36 percent just seven months later. The second-term governor, who came back from his low poll ratings to win reelection last November, has said he will not run for reelection or for any other office.

Patrick supports a gambling bill released by legislative leaders last month that would authorize three full-scale casinos and one slot machine parlor in the state. The bill, similar to one that passed the House and Senate last year, is expected to receive broad support when it is debated next week. Last year’s bill failed because legislative leaders could not come to terms with Patrick on the number and type of gambling facilities.

While the poll suggested that support for expanded gambling is relatively strong, Smith noted that other surveys have shown that opponents tend to feel more passionate about the issue than supporters. That means voters who don’t like casinos are more likely to turn out on Election Day, and punish lawmakers who support gambling, he said. The Globe poll showed those over age 64 and those with postgraduate degrees were most likely to oppose casinos. Both groups tend to vote in high numbers.

Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.