Audio report above by Fred Thys; text report by David Scharfenberg
BOSTON — With two weeks to go until the special Massachusetts U.S. Senate election, a new WBUR poll (PDFs - topline, crosstabs) suggests Republican Gabriel Gomez is struggling to chip away at Democrat Edward Markey's small, but consistent lead.
The survey, conducted after the first televised debate between the two candidates, shows Markey with a 46-39 edge.
The Democrat's lead hasn't changed much since the last WBUR poll, from early May, which gave him an eight-point edge.
It also hews closely to a Suffolk University survey released Monday.
"The race really isn't moving very far, very fast — and time is running out," said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, which conducts surveys for WBUR.
The new poll of 500 likely voters, conducted June 6-9, suggests two key blocs have held steady over the last month.
Women continue to favor Markey by wide margins — his 17-point edge in the May WBUR poll is now at 20 points.
And Gomez's advantage with independents — his three-point lead is now a five-point edge — remains too small for a Republican trying to engineer an upset in a blue state like Massachusetts.
"He's not doing what he needs to do," Koczela said. "As a Republican, you need to run up a pretty significant score among...independents. We're talking 30 to 35 points."
Gomez's Message Not Resonating
Gomez, a son of immigrants and former Navy SEAL, has put a heavy emphasis on biography.
And his story has proven attractive to the electorate — 40 percent of likely voters say they have a "favorable" view of Gomez, compared to 27 percent who have an "unfavorable" view.
But the WBUR survey suggests voters have an equally favorable view of Markey. And likability doesn't seem to be much of a factor in voter preference.
Asked to rank a series of issues as "very important," "somewhat important," "not too important" or "not at all important" in deciding whom to support, just 24 percent said "which candidate seems like a more likable person" is "very important."
Biography is not the only theme of the Gomez campaign. He's taken pains to cast Markey — a 37-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives — as a tired insider who needs to go.
Just 17 percent of voters, though, said "how many years each candidate has spent in Washington" is "very important" in deciding whom to back in the election.
Gomez does lead his opponent among the relatively small subset of voters who deemed tenure in Washington or likability a "very important" issue. But Markey, who has emphasized policy and value differences, seems to be playing on more favorable ground.
Seventy-two percent of voters said "which candidate agrees with you on key issues that matter to you" is "very important." Seventy percent said "which candidate will stand up for people like you" is "very important." And 60 percent said "which candidate will stand up for women's issues while in the Senate" is "very important."
Markey led among all three cohorts of voters. And the gap was yawning — 26 points — among those who said "women's issues" are "very important." Little wonder the Democrat has made abortion a central issue in the campaign.
Gomez's standing among women, meanwhile, seems to be slipping. His favorable-unfavorable rating and vote totals among female voters both declined between the May and June WBUR polls.
A series of three surveys from Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling shows a similar trend.
Women, who tend to vote in larger numbers than men, have proved a difference-maker in recent competitive Massachusetts elections.
In a U.S. Senate special election in 2010, Democrat Martha Coakley won women by just three points, according to a post-election survey commissioned by The Washington Post. Republican Scott Brown won men by 14 points and scored an upset victory.
Later that year, women voted for Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick over Republican challenger Charlie Baker by a 24-point margin, according to a post-election MassINC poll, carrying the incumbent to re-election.
And last fall, exit polls show, Democrat Elizabeth Warren rode an 18-point edge among women to a victory over then-U.S. Sen. Brown.
Lynch Voters Backing Markey
Markey defeated the more conservative U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch in the Democratic primary. And there was some question about whether he'd be able to unite the party in the general election.
The WBUR poll shows Markey has had moderate success. He leads Gomez among Democrats 66-15 — a solid margin, but well short of the 89 percent of the Democratic vote Warren racked up in her defeat of Brown last fall.
When it comes to Lynch supporters in particular, Markey leads Gomez 49-36.
"Markey is doing what he needs to do among Lynch voters," Koczela said. "Sure, he'd like to have more...but he has as many as he needs now."
If Markey is doing as well as required among conservative Democrats, there is some evidence that Gomez — a moderate Republican — is struggling to inspire the right edge of his own party.
When WBUR asked respondents to the new poll which candidates they'd voted for in the Democratic and Republican primaries, 69 percent of those who cast a ballot in the GOP contest said they'd backed Gomez -- well above the 51 percent he actually garnered.
The disparity might be a matter of faulty recall or respondents wanting to align, in retrospect, with a winner.
But amid anecdotal evidence that the Massachusetts right is less-than-enthused about Gomez, Koczela said it could also be a sign that conservatives have decided to sit out the general election altogether — landing outside WBUR's pool of likely voters.
Among Republicans who say they will vote, Gomez leads 80-8. It's a substantial margin, but he is not yet garnering the 90 to 95 percent of the GOP vote that recent statewide Republican candidates have accumulated.
Voter Fatigue? Perhaps Not
Light turnout in the primaries suggests a public disengaged from the Senate race.
Among the leading theories: After a string of Bay State elections in recent years, voters are simply tired of politics.
But the WBUR poll suggests that the conventional wisdom may be flawed.
Sixty-six percent of voters said they are paying "about the same amount" of attention to this election as previous Massachusetts elections. Eleven percent said they are paying "more attention" and 22 percent said they are paying "less attention."
Of those paying less attention, most said they are busy with other things or uninspired by the campaign. Just 3 percent said there have been too many elections in Massachusetts recently.
Bay State voters aren't tired of campaigns, it seems. They just want good ones.
The WBUR survey, conducted with live telephone interviews, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent. Markey's 46-39 lead includes undecided voters leaning one way or the other. Without leaners, he has a 43-36 edge. Markey's lead in the May WBUR poll was six points without leaners, eight points with them.
This program aired on June 11, 2013.