BOSTON — Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is cruising in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but faces a tightening general election contest, according to a new WBUR poll.
Coakley leads state Treasurer Steve Grossman, her closest competition in the Democratic primary, 51 to 7 percent.
She bests Republican frontrunner Charlie Baker in a hypothetical general-election matchup 39 to 30 percent, down from the 15-point edge she had on Baker in a WBUR survey in March.
“His timeline is longer” than that of the Democratic candidates trying to topple Coakley in the September primary. “He’s looking, I daresay, forward to the general election.”
Baker made the biggest gains between the March and May surveys among Republicans, independents and men.
Poll respondent Michael Long, an unemployed telephone lineman from Milford, is an independent who said he’s voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past. But after years of Democratic dominance on Beacon Hill, Long said he’s ready for a change.
“I don’t like the one-party rule that’s going on in this state for the last 10 years,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for us.”
But Coakley holds a 20-point lead over Baker among women.
Strong support from women, Koczela said, drove the campaigns of the last three Democrats to win major statewide races — Gov. Deval Patrick, who defeated Baker in 2010, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey.
“All had very sizable leads among female voters that made the job that Republican candidates had to do very, very difficult,” the pollster said. “They would have had to run up a huge margin among male voters.”
Poll respondent Mari Kalman, a Democrat who lives in Boston and works as a school counselor in Wellesley, said she would be open to a moderate Republican. But she said she leans toward Democrats. And gender, she added, plays a role in her voting decisions.
“I would definitely say that’s a factor for me,” she said. “If there was a strong female candidate, I would definitely be favorable toward that candidate.”
The poll of 504 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.4 percent. The margin of error for the Democratic primary results, which used a smaller universe of respondents, was 6.1 percent.
Analysts say Coakley’s early strength in the Democratic primary is due, in part, to high name recognition. Ninety-six percent of poll respondents have heard of Coakley.
Sixty-four percent have heard of Grossman and about 30 percent have heard of the three other Democrats in the race — former Obama administration health care official Donald Berwick, homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem and biopharmaceutical research executive Joseph Avellone.
In follow-up interviews, poll respondents who plan to vote in the Democratic primary said they would be open to learning about some of the lesser-known candidates.
But even if voters are open, Koczela said, the second-tier candidates’ continued obscurity may be a cause of concern.
Other outsiders — like Patrick in his first gubernatorial run in 2006 and Warren in her U.S. Senate campaign in 2012 — had far higher name recognition at this stage in their campaigns.
In May 2012, according to a Suffolk University poll, 44 percent had a favorable view of Warren, 33 percent had an unfavorable view and just 6 percent had not heard of her.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, cautioned that every race different. And he said that the lesser-known candidates may, in fact, still have time.
The focus now, he said, is not the general public, but the party activists who will gather at the state Democratic convention in Worcester next month. “This is still an insiders’ moment,” Ubertaccio said.
Candidates must win at least 15 percent of delegates to secure a spot on the September primary ballot. Coakley and Grossman are expected to clear the threshold easily. But Berwick, Kayyem and Avellone face a steeper climb.
And poor performance in the polls, Ubertaccio said, could make the climb steeper still.
“The danger,” Ubertaccio said, is that some of party insiders “may be thinking these [second-tier] candidates haven’t really been able to shake up this race and do we really want to go with someone who may be languishing in the single digits in these early polls?”
WBUR asked how closely respondents are following a number of news stories. The survey found little interest in Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Fisher’s lawsuit against the party seeking to get on the primary ballot.
Just six percent said they were following news of the story “very closely” and 15 percent “somewhat closely.” By contrast, 77 percent said they were following news of the deaths of children under the state’s Department of Children and Families “very closely” or “somewhat closely.”
Fisher accused the party of cheating him out of a spot on the ballot. The party said he asked for $1 million to drop his suit. But Fisher said it was GOP officials who first talked about financial compensation.
The poll also asked voters if they approve of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s job performance. Fifty-three percent said they approve and 31 percent disapprove.
The results align with a national survey, conducted by Gallup in February, that found Americans approving of his job performance by a 55 to 34 percent margin.
The previous four secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — all had higher favorability ratings after one year in office.
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