WPRI 12/Journal Poll: Taveras still on top; Pell slips

The three major Democratic candidates for governor are, left to right, Clay Pell, Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The tight race between Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Treasurer Gina Raimondo for the Democratic nomination for governor has barely budged since last winter, but their opponent Clay Pell has lost ground, an exclusive WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released Tuesday shows.

The new survey of 506 Rhode Island Democratic primary voters shows Taveras still in the lead at 33%, with Raimondo still a close second at 29% and Pell a distant third at 12%. More than one in five voters – 22% – haven’t decided whom they’ll support in the Sept. 9 primary. A fourth candidate, Todd Giroux, is at 1.6%.

“I’m not overly surprised,” WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said. “The candidates are just now starting to go up with their media [advertisements]. There hasn’t been a lot of contact with the voters of Rhode Island. … I think once that starts it will start to move the needle.”

Both Taveras and Raimondo gained exactly 2.2 percentage points of support compared with the last WPRI/Journal poll in February. But Pell lost 3.2 points of support, a troubling sign for the 32-year-old political newcomer and grandson of former U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell.

Eyewitness News | The Providence Journal Campaign 2014 May Poll Results
Dive in to the interactive results of the WPRI 12/Journal Campaign 2014 May Poll

Fleming blamed Pell’s sinking poll numbers on the strange saga of his missing car, which garnered significant media attention in recent months. “It just had legs,” he said. “People kept talking about it. If you mention Clay Pell to voters right now, what’s the one thing they say? The car.”

In-Depth Interactive Poll Results: VIEW NOW »

“I think what they have to do is get out really fast with some paid media to try and to change his image with the voters as fast as they can,” Fleming added. Pell has loaned his campaign $2.08 million so far.

The landline and cell-phone interview poll was conducted Tuesday, May 27 through Friday, May 30 by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4.38 percentage points. Fleming has been conducting polls for WPRI 12 since 1984.

Only 38% of voters who named a favored candidate in the poll said they will definitely vote for that person on Sept. 9, while 41% said there’s still a good chance they will change their minds. And although Taveras has an overall lead in the race, the poll shows his support is softer than Raimondo’s or Pell’s.

“I’ll be honest with you – I was very surprised,” Fleming said. “There’s a lot of room for movement.” He added: “I basically thought early in the campaign that a lot of voters who are supporting the candidates would be locked into their candidates. But they’re not.”

Raimondo has the largest share of supporters who say they will definitely vote for her in the primary at 45%, compared with 38% of Pell voters and 33% of Taveras voters who say so. On the other hand, Taveras has the most voters – 44% – who say there’s a good chance they’ll change their minds, compared with 40% of Pell’s voters and 38% of Raimondo’s.

When it comes to Raimondo, Fleming said, “people basically either love her or hate her. She’s a little more polarizing than Angel.”

Taveras’s 4-point lead over Raimondo in the WPRI/Journal poll is buttressed by his double-digit advantages among voters ages 18 to 59, self-identified Democrats and voters in union households. The mayor has modestly increased his support among all subgroups of voters since February, and he’s ahead of the treasurer with nearly all of them.

The two exceptions – groups who give Raimondo the edge over Taveras – are voters ages 60 and older, 35% of whom support Raimondo versus 29% who support Taveras, and self-identified independents, 36% of whom back Raimondo versus 28% who back Taveras.

“Older voters are very key. They vote very heavily in Democratic primaries,” Fleming said. “It’s a group that she really wants to hold onto.”

The new poll shows a small shift among female voters since the previous survey: Raimondo’s support among women has edged up from 25% in February to 30% in May. She now does slightly better among women than men, a reversal from four months ago.

“I think the Raimondo campaign has really worked over the last few months to close that gender gap among females,” Fleming said. “If that continues it could help her as we get toward September.”

The poll offers little good news for the Pell campaign.

Unlike Taveras and Raimondo, Pell has lost ground with every subgroup of voters since the February poll, which was conducted just after he kicked off his campaign. His strongest support comes from voters in union households, 14% of whom are backing him, though that’s down from 17% in February. He has just 9% support among independents.

Pell’s favorability numbers tell a similar story.

Pell’s favorable rating among Democratic primary voters dipped from 37% in February to 35% in May, while his unfavorable rating shot up from 21% to 32%. “You would expect someone like Clay Pell, new on the scene – you would think he would start to go up,” Fleming said. “But just the opposite has happened.”

Pell does best among voters ages 18 to 39, who give him a 43% favorable rating, but is in negative territory with voters ages 40 and older as well as with self-identified independents. One in three voters still don’t know enough about him to express an opinion.

In a statement, Pell campaign manager Devin Driscoll said the candidate has laid out “a detailed and practical vision for the future of Rhode Island” in recent months and is just beginning to reach out to voters directly. He noted that more than 20% of primary voters remain undecided, and more than 40% of those who’ve picked a candidate said there’s a good chance they could still change their minds.

“This race is anything but a sure thing,” Driscoll said.

However, Fleming also said it’s not clear whether the conventional wisdom is correct that Taveras would be benefit significantly if Pell drops out of the race, noting that Pell’s voters give fairly weak favorable ratings to both Taveras (46%) and Raimondo (36%).

“I think Angel would get a little benefit from it but not a huge benefit,” Fleming said. “The numbers are not overwhelming.”

Taveras, for his part, remains extremely popular with the primary electorate.

The first-term Providence mayor has a 67% favorable rating among Democratic primary voters, basically unchanged since February. His favorable rating is 70% among both self-identified Democrats and voters ages 40 to 59. He scores lowest among independents, but even in that case 62% of them rate him favorably.

Raimondo is also generally popular, but less so than Taveras.

The first-term treasurer has a 54% favorable rating among Democratic primary voters, also basically unchanged since February. She gets her highest favorable ratings from voters ages 60 and older (62%) and self-identified independents (60%). But Taveras is viewed more favorably than Raimondo by every subgroup.

Raimondo’s campaign had a huge financial advantage as of March 31, with $3.4 million on hand, about $2 million more than Taveras. Fleming said she will need to use that money to run negative ads that bring down his popularity if she wants to win. “At some point she’s going to have to contrast herself with Angel,” he said.

Both Taveras and Raimondo have lost popularity with voters in union households compared with the February poll. Those voters give favorable ratings of 65% to Taveras and 34% to Raimondo, down from 74% and 43% in February, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the economy and jobs is Democratic primary voters’ single most important issue this year, chosen by 51% of voters, including 60% of Raimondo supporters and 46% of undecided voters. Education was a distant second among all voters as the top issue for 13%, though the gap wasn’t so big among Pell voters, 22% of whom picked education as their top issue.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

Coming up on Eyewitness News at 10 – find out whether Democratic primary voters think Rhode Island should pay the 38 Studios bonds.

Tomorrow on Eyewitness News This Morning live at 5 – find out who primary voters are backing to replace Gina Raimondo as general treasurer.

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