Rob Horowitz: Latest Poll Contains Good News for Cicilline
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
If all one knows about a Congressional primary is that a relatively unknown challenger is in a nearly dead heat with the incumbent and 20 percent of the voters are still undecided with more than three months to go, one would think that is great news for the challenger. In fact, one might gently encourage the incumbent's staffers to start polishing their resumes.
However, in the unusual circumstances that define Rhode Island’s first Congressional district race, a recent WPRI poll putting U.S. Rep. David Cicilline at 40 percent and Anthony Gemma at 36 percent in the primary horse race actually provides some good news for the incumbent.
For the past 18 months or so, Congressman Cicilline has received the most negative media coverage of any politician that I can recall who hasn’t been indicted or been at the center of a major scandal.
The source of this negative attention is the contrast between then-Mayor Cicilline’s rosy description of the state of Providence’s finances and the difficult fiscal situation inherited by Cicilline's successor as Mayor, Angel Taveras( full disclosure: I served as an advisor on the Taveras’ Mayoral campaign). This contrast created major credibility problems for the new Congressman and undermined one of his major selling points -- that he was an excellent Mayor who brought sound management to a troubled city.
As any political watcher knows, the horse race, rather than issue positions, tends to dominate political coverage. Fueling the intense, critical media attention was a series of polls that recorded precipitous drops in Cicillines’ approval and favorability ratings. As a result, Cicilline was caught in a negative feedback loop. Negative coverage triggered bad poll ratings which then triggered more negative coverage as reporters, pollsters and pundits were called upon to explain why Cicilline’s poll numbers were so low.
One would think from the media coverage that the only issue that mattered to first district voters in 2012 was Cicilline misleading voters about the Providence budget during the 2010 campaign. However, when likely primary voters were asked to pick whether Providence finances, character, best chances to win, experience or jobs/economy was the most important issue in deciding their vote, nearly half picked jobs and the economy while less than one-in-ten opted for Providence finances.
It is true that that in this poll question-- cleverly designed by WPRI pollster Joe Fleming---another three in 10 likely voters chose character which one could argue is connected to Cicilline’s credibility problem. Overall, however, these results bode well for Cicilline who has concrete and popular legislative proposals for fixing the economy and should serve as a wake-up call to the media that broader more multi-dimensional coverage of this campaign is what is needed going forward.
The poll contains other good news for Cicilline, including the fact that his lead increases when only those most likely to vote are counted and that his approval rating among Democrats has increased from previous polls.
Most importantly, Cicilline has survived an extended period of saturation-level critical coverage and now stands to benefit as the campaign debate widens to include national issues where Cicilline is more in tune with primary voters than the more conservative Gemma and more aligned with general election voters than the Republican candidate Brendan Doherty. Cicilline’s Providence problems are not going away, but they are unlikely to dominate the debate going forward as they have the last eighteen months.
That is why, despite some premature political obituaries, David Cicilline is very much alive and kicking and stands a good chance of holding on to his seat.
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.
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