PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Partisans on all sides seized on the results of Monday’s new WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll to buttress their arguments about this fall’s election for Rhode Island governor, as analysts scrutinized the numbers for clues on the state of the electorate.
The survey of 419 registered Rhode Island voters shows Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo with a narrow lead over Republican challenger Allan Fung, at 38% and 36%, respectively. The poll finds 6% of voters supporting independent Joe Trillo and 17% undecided. Raimondo holds a wider lead over another Republican hopeful, Patricia Morgan. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.
Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native who now tracks gubernatorial races for the Cook Political Report forecasting group in Washington, described Fung as “a pretty weak candidate to date,” but also said Raimondo should be concerned that she is currently winning only 62% of Democrats.
“That number should be at least 15 to 20 points higher and is an indication that she has work to do with her base,” Duffy said in an email. “She should have a better handle on the base by now.”
“At the same time, I also think there is a correlation between Raimondo’s ballot number and the wrong direction number,” Duffy said. The poll shows only 39% of Rhode Island voters think the state is headed in the right direction. “Whether or not their expectations were realistic, voters don’t seem to believe that Raimondo has done enough to turn the state around,” she said.
Duffy also argued Trillo – the former state lawmaker and Trump campaign chairman who left the GOP primary to run as an independent – is “overperforming” in light of his relatively low name identification and relatively high unfavorable rating. “I think he is a stand-in for voters who want another choice,” she said.
June Speakman, a professor of political science at RWU, described the results as “unsurprising.” She noted that a large number of voters remain undecided, and many are still unfamiliar with a number of candidates.
“This tells us that it is very early in the campaign cycle to be drawing conclusions about who’s up and who’s down,” she said in an email. “What we can tell from the data is that all candidates have the opportunity to move those undecided or less-informed voters in their direction. And that’s what campaigns are for.”
Speakman highlighted the gap between the 50% of voters who view Raimondo favorably and the smaller share – 37% – who say she is doing an excellent or good job as governor.
“This is similar to the college students who say ‘my professor is a really nice person, but as a teacher, she’s not so good.’ Or the teacher who says, ‘he’s a pleasure to have in class, and he’s getting a C in history,'” she said. “The good news for the governor (and for Mayor Fung who also has high favorability scores) is that voters’ assessment of personality tends to be fairly stable; the job approval scores fluctuate as events and media coverage fluctuate.”
Speakman also said Raimondo’s 16-point advantage over Fung among women voters could help her in the fall. “All indications are that the women’s vote is likely to be a significant factor in the election of 2018 across the country and up and down the ballot,” she said. “If these numbers hold in future polls, this is an advantage for the sitting governor.”
Darrell West, a former Brown University professor and pollster now at the Brookings Institution, said Raimondo is showing “vulnerability” with 61% of voters saying she is doing a fair or poor job.
“That is getting to the low end of the kinds of numbers you would want to see going into a re-election campaign,” West said in an email. “Ideally, you would want a job approval that is about 10 points higher than what she has. It suggests opponents have a decent shot at her, despite the improving economy.”
West also said Fung “clearly benefits from past elections,” which should help him fundraise and attract national support. “Republicans will see this race as a possible pickup amidst a national political climate that is running against the GOP at this point in time,” he said.
Harry Enten, a CNN political analyst and former staffer at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, tweeted out the poll and commented: “Wouldn’t shock me if GOP held 5 of 6 governorships in New England by next year.” (The Republicans already control the governor’s offices in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.)
David Ortiz, a deputy campaign manager for Raimondo, declined to comment directly on the poll results. Echoing the theme of her campaign, he argued she is “finally making real progress to create jobs and put Rhode Islanders back to work.”
“But this kind of recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and not everyone is feeling it yet,” Ortiz said in a statement. “We need to keep going, until every Rhode Islander is included in our state’s comeback.”
Shortly before the poll came out, the Democratic Governors Association took aim at Fung in a news release highlighting his reluctance to comment on various policy questions since the launch of his campaign, including offshore drilling.
“Fung’s preposterous refusal to let voters know where he stands makes Rhode Islanders wonder what he’s hiding and should disqualify his candidacy,” DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said. “Voters need to know where the candidates running to lead their state stand on important issues.”
Yet Raimondo also faced blowback over the poll from inside her own party.
Burrillville Land Trust President Paul Roselli, who has filed to challenge Raimondo for the Democratic nomination, argued the poll shows the party risks losing the governor’s office if Raimondo is its candidate on the November ballot. Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee is also flirting with a primary challenge to the governor, though Roselli has been trying to dissuade him.
“The Democrats need to rethink their strategy,” Roselli said in a statement. “If Raimondo wins the nomination again she could harm down-ticket races and put a number of currently held Democratic seats in the General Assembly in danger. … [A]s a progressive Democratic champion I can offer the party a popular winnable alternative to the disaster of Fung as governor.”
The Fung campaign largely embraced the survey results, despite saying they would have used a different methodology. Within 90 minutes of its release, the Cranston mayor’s team blasted an email to supporters highlighting the results and soliciting a new round of donations.
Andrew Vargas Vila, Fung’s campaign manager, argued in a statement that the poll shows Raimondo “is extremely vulnerable with a very low job approval rating. The voters know that we can do better than Governor Raimondo’s managerial incompetence and questionable ethical behavior.”
Without naming them, Vargas Vila also suggested the poll shows Morgan and Trillo are not credible candidates. “It is clear that this is a two-person race and the voters want fundamental change in the direction of Rhode Island,” he said.
The Republican Governors Association sent separate news releases on Monday night and Tuesday morning arguing the poll results show Raimondo is vulnerable. John Burke, a spokesman for the RGA, noted that the 37% of voters rating Raimondo’s job performance as excellent or good is lower than any of the few public polls since she took office.
“Even after the Democrat Governors Association spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in early campaign ads backing Raimondo last year, her approval rating has gone down, and her chances of winning a second term have continued to decrease with polls showing the race as a toss-up,” Burke said in a statement. He was referencing a series of campaign commercials the DGA ran in the first part of 2017 touting Raimondo’s proposed free tuition plan.
Trillo’s campaign said in a statement his single-digit showing in the poll is “right on track with their expectations, given that the other candidates are current officeholders and they simply have name recognition.” It went on to say Trillo is taking his time to roll out proposals since he is not facing a September primary to get on the ballot.
“Gina can’t solve a problem and Alan [sic] is a weak leader,” the Trillo campaign added.
But the survey instantly sparked criticism of Trillo from Republicans who say he is acting as a spoiler, siphoning voters on the right from Fung and thereby making it more likely Raimondo will eke out a win. Fung has nicknamed Trillo “Trader Joe,” saying he likes to make deals with his former colleagues at the State House.
“This poll shows that, with Joe Trillo in the race, yes, we’re going to have to deal with him,” Fung told Eyewitness News.
“Everyone is entitled to run. I’m not going to stop anyone from running,” he said. “The bottom line is this – and Rhode Islanders know this because they saw that in 2014, the vote for any other individual besides myself is going to be a vote for Gina Raimondo.”
“I understand that he’s upset, because he thinks I’m going to cost him the election,” Trillo told Eyewitness News. But he said he hopes to pull voters from both Raimondo and Fung to put together a winning coalition. He said his biggest concern about the poll was the poor marks voters give President Trump, with whom Trillo is now closely associated.
State Rep. Brian Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican and vocal Fung supporter, argued on Twitter that it is “fair to say few Trillo voters would vote for Raimondo if he were not in the race.” Others echoed the same sentiment.
Yet Ken Block, who ran for the governor as the Moderate Party nominee in 2010 and unsuccessfully challenged Fung for the GOP nomination in 2014, argued the poll buttresses the arguments of outsider candidates. He specifically referenced the candidacy of the late Bob Healey, who took 21% of the vote as the Moderate candidate in 2014.
“This ought to put to bed the idea that Healey somehow messed up the 2014 election,” Block tweeted. “His block of voters *still* doesn’t seem to want to vote for either Raimondo or Fung.”
Republican Giovanni Feroce, who was not included in the poll because he opened his campaign account after it was finalized, tweeted: “It’s exactly what we already knew, at least 2 out of 3 people don’t want any of them as governor and they have universal name recognition except for Trillo.” (Two-thirds of voters surveyed did not know Morgan, and one in four did not know Fung.)
“You get 30-35 points being the major party candidate,” Feroce continued. “That goes for either side, so they are only getting 1 to 3 points from somebody who didn’t already support them. The key is how do you get 15 points above that. … Whoever wins the GOP primary is the next governor.” He also said he will not attack Fung or Morgan in the primary.
Morgan’s campaign did not issue a statement or post on social media about the poll. Instead she kept her focus on policy, posting a new video explaining why she opposes taxpayer subsidies for the proposed PawSox stadium.
Tim White contributed to this report.