Is Congressman Cicilline Actually Up Double-Digits on Brendan Doherty?
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Incumbent David Cicilline has an 11-point lead over Republican Brendan Doherty in a poll released Wednesday by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), but political observers are mixed as to whether the first-term Congressman has actually begun to pull away in what is expected to be the closest Congressional race on the November ballot.
The poll showed Cicilline with a 46-35 lead over Doherty. Independent David Vogel pulled in 8 percent.
“You always have to take party-sponsored surveys with a grain of salt because the pollsters generally don’t release the question wording or order,” said Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.
While West showed some skepticism toward the poll, he also noted that it appears Cicilline has improved his chances of winning re-election significantly compared to a WPRI poll (the last independent poll on the race) released in February that had him trailing by 15 points against Doherty.
That poll came long before Cicilline trounced challenger Anthony Gemma in a Democratic primary that featured Gemma claiming Cicilline engaged in an elaborate voter fraud scheme dating back to his first run for Mayor of Providence in 2002. West said it is clear that the Congressman’s handling of Providence is less of a concern to voters now than it may have been in recent months.
“Cicilline has weathered much of the storm concerning Providence finances,” West said. “Between his strong primary showing (including in the city of Providence) and these survey results, he appears much stronger than people anticipated over the summer. The strong support for President Obama in the first district and the worries voters have about the national GOP have put Congressman Cicilline in a good position for the general election. If Cicilline can turn this into a referendum on the national parties, he has a good chance of winning the election.”
Focus on Providence isn’t Working
Cicilline has managed to pivot away from his tenure as Providence Mayor despite both Gemma and Doherty’s attempts to shine a light on the Congressman’s prior record. Cicilline was forced to apologize earlier this year for suggesting the city’s finances were in “excellent financial condition” during his 2010 campaign. Current Mayor Angel Taveras entered office with a $110 million structural deficit and was forced to fire teachers, close schools and ask for significant concessions from both current and retired public employees.
But because Gemma became unhinged during the primary run, Quest Research pollster Victor Profughi said Cicilline likely received a major bump that is reflected in the DCCC’s poll. Profughi noted that Doherty’s association with the GOP is a cause for concern for voters in such a traditionally liberal district (President Obama won with 62.9 percent of the vote in 2008) and that attempting to demonize Cicilline for his time in Providence doesn’t seem to be effective.
“It seems very unlikely that Cicilline will be beaten by a rerun negative campaign which tries to link him with his fiscal record in Providence,” Profughi said. “Others have been there, done that, and it hasn't worked. It's even less likely to succeed in a general election, with Obama on the ticket.”
Still, Doherty campaign manager Ian Prior on Wednesday questioned the validity of the poll and ripped Cicilline’s campaign for being proud of a poll where more than half of voters still don’t support the incumbent. Prior also suggested the results came from a “push poll,” which he claims is designed to deceive voters.
“Ironically, Cicilline is bragging about a ‘poll’ where he, as the incumbent, still can’t get above 50% voter approval, even after: seven weeks of unopposed television advertising; the Democratic National Convention; and a primary win over Anthony Gemma,” Pryor said. “The fact that Cicilline can’t win 50% of the vote under those circumstances in an overwhelmingly Democratic district shows just how little people trust him. That part is true.”
A Choice Between Candidates, Not Parties
But Brown political science professor Wendy Schiller said the poll reflects the larger Democratic voting base in the 1st Congressional District, giving Cicilline a larger partisan base to pull support from than Doherty.
Schiller said Cicilline has also been running one very effective ad that links Doherty to the national GOP, but noted that the 11 percent of undecided voters will be vital in the race. Schiller said Cicilline benefits from having both Obama and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on the ballot this year. The poll had Whitehouse ahead of Republican Barry Hinckley by 37 percentage points.
“No doubt that Cicilline will benefit from having Obama and Whitehouse on the ballot with him,” Schiller said. “If voters are leaning towards voting for Democrats at the top of the ticket, they frequently just stay with that party. It takes more persuading to get them to make a change to the opposite party.
But that’s doesn’t mean Doherty should be counted out, Schiller said.
“Ultimately Doherty has to make this campaign about a choice between two candidates, not two parties,” she said. “What does he have to offer as a candidate that Cicilline does not currently offer as the incumbent Congressman? If Doherty can articulate that in the next few weeks, this race will get more competitive.”