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Issues And Polls: A Post-Debate Primer

This article is more than 8 years old.

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker engaged in their final broadcast debate Tuesday night, still locked in a tight race. While polls have pegged the margin differently, polling averages show Baker with the slightest of leads, and 54 percent odds of winning that are barely better than a coin flip.

With such a razor thin margin, the two candidates will likely use the final week to remind voters of the issues on which they have an edge, and to focus attention on their winning issues. We've analyzed all the issues-related questions from the polling done in the race, ours and others, to see where each candidates' strengths lie. Here's the tale of the tape, according to the polls:


Baker Leads On The Economy, But It's Complicated:

There was a lot of talk at the debate Tuesday night about improving the state's economy. Both our polling and The Boston Globe's show voters preferring Baker on economic issues by a 2-to-1 margin.

Voters across a variety of polls rate the economy as their most important issue when deciding how to cast their vote.


That said, polling about the economy is not a simple matter, and opinions differ based on income and class. We found that many voters would prefer a more equal distribution of economic gains instead of unchecked growth, a position that could play to Martha Coakley's favor. Ninety percent of voters consider themselves part of the middle class, and according to a poll by UMass Amherst, Coakley is considered the better candidate in representing the interests of the middle class.

Given these facts and the importance of the economy as the top issue in voters' mind, Coakley tried to emphasize the importance of investing in workforce skills during Tuesday night's debate. Baker focused on supporting small businesses, particularly through tax cuts.

Baker Seen As Better Manager Of State Government:

As early as our pre-primary polling, we found that management of state government was emerging as an issue, both for Democrats and Republicans.


It is still a top issue, driven in part by dissatisfaction, seen in our polling and The Globe's, with lapses by the current administration.

Voters may still like Gov. Deval Patrick, but they are less happy with how he has handled various problems in state government. The issue has become so key that The Globe framed their endorsement of Baker mainly around the idea that he would be a better manager of state government.

Early polling showed Baker and Coakley tied on the question of who would better manage state government. Since then, however, multiple polls have shown Baker with a clear edge on the issue. But as important as the issue is, it is not the single issue moving voters. Female voters in our recent polling, for instance, favor Baker as a manager but more still plan to vote for Coakley.

Coakley, of course, has experience as a manager of the state's attorney general's office, but bringing that up runs the risk of linking her to the problems on Beacon Hill that have brought this issue to the forefront. Baker, who has been away from government in the private sector for the last several years, is on safer ground talking about this issue, even as Coakley has attempted to raise questions about his own public and private sector credentials.

Coakley Leads On Education And Health Care:

Baker's surge in the polls is closely linked to his edge on the two issues above. What is helping Coakley keep things close is her advantage on two core Democratic issues: health care and education.


Most of the polling around health care this election cycle has concerned containing health care costs. One might think cost containment would play more to a Republican candidate as a fiscal issue, but virtually all the polling has shown Coakley with a slight edge on the issue. Her lead is nowhere near the size of Baker's leads on the economy or management, however. Both candidates have a history with health care that has come up in previous debates: Baker as an executive at Harvard Pilgrim; and Coakley as the regulator overseeing the terms of Partners HealthCare's acquisition of community hospitals on the South Shore.

Where Coakley does have a substantial lead is on education, another traditional Democratic issue. Education is central to Coakley's campaign. She has spoken in debates and forums about her plan to invest in education as a "clear difference" between her and Baker. A negative ad by an outside group attacks Baker for proposing cuts to education during his time working for Republican governors.


Coakley has a lead, but non-election polling we have done for other organizations shows that the public's preferences on education may be shifting. Both voters and business leaders have expressed concerns about the prevalence of standardized tests crowding out other forms of instruction, including vocational programs to prepare students for jobs in technical fields. And Baker, for his part, has been vocal in criticizing the legislature for failing to raise the cap on charter schools in the state's lowest-performing districts. Coakley, meanwhile, has had to balance her statements on charters against the support of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. As with the economy, there are cross-currents swirling beneath the surface.

Baker More Trusted On Taxes:

If education and health care could be said to be Democratic issues, there is perhaps no more Republican issue than taxes. In debates, Baker has taken Coakley's pledge to "invest" as evidence that she will raise taxes, while he has said that taxes will not go up if he is elected governor.

Baker is doing well with voters who are very concerned about taxes, but on the whole Massachusetts voters are not overly concerned about their taxes being too high. Despite an earlier WBUR poll finding voters think that, on average, $0.43 of every tax dollar is wasted, many voters seem to be fine with their level of taxes.

In September, we found 45 percent thought that the level of taxes and services should stay about where it is now; only 25 percent would reduce service to lower taxes. And while The Globe found that half of voters rated lowering taxes "very important," that number put it very much in the lower tier of issues polled.

Coakley Leading On Women's Issues, But Baker Mostly Unscathed: 

Despite a couple of early gaffes by Charlie Baker and the fact that Martha Coakley would be the first elected female governor in Massachusetts history, "women's issues" have not been as prominent in the campaign as might be expected.


Coakley holds a wide lead as the candidate who will "stand up for women's interests," but, as we have written previously, the women's vote is not a monolith.

Coakley's lead among women is now, in some polls, equaled or eclipsed by Baker's among men.

Baker Seen As More Likable:

All debates are part substance - highlighting the difference between candidates - and part theater.

Each candidate tried to connect with voters beyond their policy positions during the debate Tuesday night, even reaching for emotional appeals.

So far, the polling shows that Charlie Baker is viewed far more favorably than unfavorably, while the gap between Martha Coakley's favorable and unfavorable ratings is much smaller.

What About Immigration And Welfare Reform?

Baker's advertisements often mention his plans to reform welfare, and his supporters clearly see the issue as more of a priority than do Coakley's backers. However, when quizzed on who they trust more on welfare, voters are evenly split, according to a UMass Amherst poll. On immigration, the situation is the same, with the two candidates seen as about even.

In both cases, the issues are ranked at the bottom of voters' priority lists. Tuesday night, Baker mentioned immigration issues a couple of times but never emphasized welfare reform.



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