By Jim Ellis
May 12, 2020 — On Friday, the most recent Massachusetts Senate Democratic primary poll was released, and it presents a very different conclusion to the close race results previously published.q
Late last week, we covered a University of Massachusetts at Lowell poll (April 27-May 1; 1,000 registered Massachusetts voters, 531 likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters) that found Sen. Ed Markey (D) locked in a virtual dead heat (42-44 percent) with Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Newton) in their intra-party fight.
Emerson College (May 5-6; 740 registered Massachusetts voters, 620 likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters) conducted a statewide Massachusetts poll on the heels of the UMass effort and sees Rep. Kennedy crushing Sen. Markey, 58-42%.
The focal point of the Emerson poll was the presidential race and reaction to COVID-19, so just one question was asked about the Senate race. Unlike the UMass survey, Emerson did not release segmentation figures for the Senate ballot test question, so it becomes more difficult to judge reliability.
Since the two polls are so far apart, questions arise as to which is the more accurate. The sponsors are known pollsters who regularly survey Massachusetts – Emerson College is located in Boston, while the UMass affiliate resides in Lowell – so neither has a particular geographic familiarity advantage over the other. The sample sizes are both large enough to render strong results, and each has accurately depicted the state in previous studies.
To get a better idea, let’s compare the two polls to other released data. Since the beginning of the year, five polls have tested the Massachusetts US Senate Democratic primary. Two are from UMass Lowell, and one from Emerson College, as noted above. The other two come from UMass Amherst and Suffolk University.
As we know, Emerson finds Kennedy up 58-42% and the latest UMass Lowell posts a 44-42 percent split, again in Kennedy’s favor. The earlier UMass Lowell poll (Feb. 12-19) found Kennedy with a lead in a similarly close range to their current offering but with many more undecided responses, 35-34 percent.
UMass Amherst (Feb. 18-24) actually found Sen. Markey holding a three-point lead, 43-40 percent, again similar to the latest UMass Lowell study in terms of margin.
The fifth poll, from Suffolk and also conducted in February (Feb. 26-28), likewise found results similar to UMass Lowell. SU’s results yielded Kennedy a 42-36 percent advantage.
Since the Emerson data is producing no undecided or refused to answer responses – highly unusual for a campaign with four months remaining – it is reasonable to think that the surveyors asked further questions, not reported in their polling synopsis. The follow-up comments or queries would be asked in such a manner as to lead all respondents to choose one candidate or the other. The detection of such push questions or techniques lessens the Emerson reliability aspect.
Though the Kennedy “mystique,” as many in the media refer to the family’s political loyalty factor within the Massachusetts Democratic voting base, it is still difficult to believe that Sen. Markey would be trailing by a 16-point margin.
Though Kennedy is obviously a household political name in the state, one cannot minimize that Sen. Markey has been in elective office from the Boston area since 1973, consecutively. This counts his time in the state legislature and US House of Representatives, before being elected to the Senate in a 2013 special election when succeeding John Kerry who resigned to become US Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. Sen. Markey was then re-elected to a full six-year term in the regular 2014 election.
Therefore, it seems more plausible that the race is closer, thus pointing to the Emerson poll as the likely outlier. It is evident, however, that we will be seeing much more data coming from this volatile race in the coming weeks.
In conclusion, an interesting question in the Emerson poll was asked about the presidential race. While the ballot test finds former Vice President Joe Biden easily ahead of President Trump (67-33 percent) – numbers that appear reasonable considering that Massachusetts is one of the Democrats’ most loyal states in federal races – the so-called enthusiasm question produced a much different conclusion.
When asked “how excited are you to support your candidate for President,” a whopping 66 percent of Trump voters said they were extremely excited (48 percent) or very excited (18 percent) to cast their vote for the president. This compares to the Biden voters answering in far lower percentages (extremely excited: 24 percent; very excited 20 percent). Therefore, Emerson projects that President Trump has a 22-point advantage on a question that generally is used to gauge potential turnout.
Though the enthusiasm response is not enough to turn Massachusetts toward Trump, such motivation ratios are reflective of conclusions also being drawn in more competitive states.