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WBUR Poll Shows The Gas Tax Ballot Question Is A Close Contest

Every Thursday, Poll Vault looks at the other WBUR poll numbers shaping the Massachusetts political environment.

Gas Tax Indexing Repeal Trails In Narrow Contest

Part of the transportation funding bill passed last year was a measure to tie, or "index," the state’s tax on gasoline to inflation. Practically, this means the gas tax will increase by a small amount each year without requiring a vote from the state Legislature.

Opponents of this move have launched an effort to repeal the indexing of the gas tax, which will appear as Question 1 on the November ballot.

On the campaign trail, you'll find a stark partisan split between the candidates when addressing this issue. All of the Democrats in last week's gubernatorial primary supported indexing, while both Republicans were against it. Charlie Baker even helped collect signatures to put the repeal measure on the ballot, and touted doing so on his campaign website.

Given this split among the candidates, and the fact that tax issues tend to divide voters along partisan lines, you might expect to see Democrats defending the gas tax indexing and Republicans clamoring for repeal. Indeed, other polls we have done on tax issues in Massachusetts show a stark divide in support between Democrats and Republicans.

In fact, this week’s WBUR Tracking Poll shows a much smaller partisan gap than might be expected. The poll found 39 percent of voters in favor of repeal of the gas tax indexing, 45 percents opposed, and 16 percent undecided. Democrats oppose repeal by an 8-point margin, while Republicans are evenly divided on the issue.

Gas Tax

The narrowness of the partisan gap here may suggest voters are having difficulty understanding the implications of a "yes" vote and a "no" vote. In this case, a “yes” vote is a vote against the law and a “no” vote keeps the law, a fact which likely causes some level of confusion for voters. Some of the Republicans saying they would vote "no" may actually mean that they do not support indexing, and vice versa with the Democrats. Such problems are to be expected when discussing ballot questions.

So why not clear up the confusion? While poll questions are typically written in a way that removes as much ambiguity as possible, ballot items are an exception for many pollsters. The wording used in this poll mirrors what voters will see in the voting booth, so that the results reflect the possible confusion about a “yes” or  “no” vote come election day.

Framing the question as a “yes” versus a “no” choice also captures voters' tendency toward choosing “no” when uncertain about a ballot question, since “no” is viewed as preserving the status quo. This is one reason why "yes" ballot campaigns are generally considered more difficult to win than "no" campaigns.

As we move ahead, the partisan gap on this question is something to watch. If it expands, it likely means the ballot campaigns and party candidates are successfully communicating the meaning of a "yes" and "no" vote. The lack of such a split here illustrates the complexities of campaigning on ballot questions. It’s not just about building agreement; it’s about educating voters on how to vote, even if they agree with you.

Next week, we will be looking at another ballot measure: Question 4, regarding earned sick time for all employees in Massachusetts.

Voters Want The Next Governor To Be An Effective Manager

This week featured another several questions exploring the kinds of characteristics voters are using to evaluate the candidates for governor. These are examples of the kinds of questions campaigns often ask in their own polling, to understand the mood of the electorate and determine how to position their candidate. Questions like these can also help frame what the election is “about" — what is the need voters want a candidate to fulfill? We bring them to you to give a glimpse of the kinds of characteristics voters will looking for as they watch debates, read the news and see advertising.

Don’t be surprised if you hear more about the nuts and bolts of government and the candidates’ experience managing large enterprises in this campaign.

As voters turn the page to a new administration, they seem to be looking for something a bit different than what they found appealing in Gov. Deval Patrick. Our polling over the last few weeks suggests voters are looking for someone who can manage state government effectively. This is somewhat unusual, in that voters often say they value more abstract and aspirational attributes. In the 2012 U.S. Senate election, for instance, a key attribute for voters was which candidate would stand up for regular people, even more so than someone who could get the economy moving. Elizabeth Warren was perceived more as a champion in this regard, and she went on to victory.

This year, voters seem to be focusing more on the basics of running state government. This was true in the primary, when voters in both parties ranked effective management as the most important characteristic in selecting a candidate. This week's polling suggests it is continuing to play a key role heading into the general election.

Voters are closely divided as to whether they think Charlie Baker (34 percent) or Martha Coakley (32 percent) would be a better manager. The remaining third did not see this label as clearly describing one of the major party candidates. Voters' opinions on this issue are strongly indicative of how they will vote. Nearly all of those who see Coakley as a better manager say they will voter for her, and likewise for Baker.

The saying goes, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This poll suggests voters want to hear at least a little prose along with the high rhetoric during this campaign. It may be that voters have grown tired of too many poetically expressed aspirations without the day-to-day management to back it up.

This concern with management may also be driven by a number of recent problems and scandals in state government over the past several months. We asked voters this week about how Gov. Patrick has handled some of these issues. By a wide margin, voters say he should have done a better job (60 percent) rather than that he has handled them as well as could be expected (32 percent). Patrick's favorables and job approval have also slipped somewhat from their sky high levels of the last few years, although both remain narrowly positive.

So don't be surprised if you hear more about the nuts and bolts of government and the candidates' experience managing large enterprises during this campaign. Prosaic as it might sound, the polling suggests this is what the voters want to hear.

Steve Koczela is the lead writer for Poll Vault and president of The MassINC Polling Group.

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