U.S. Sen. Buddy Cianci? New poll tests ’12 candidates

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse holds a double-digit lead over all his rumored potential opponents next year and a 17-point advantage over former Gov. Donald Carcieri, according to a new survey released Wednesday.

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian gave Whitehouse the toughest competition in seven potential matchups that also tested the appeal of Carcieri, John Loughlin, John Robitaille – and Buddy Cianci, who was identified as an independent and polls surprisingly well. (More on that below.)

The automated telephone survey of 544 Rhode Island voters was conducted last Wednesday through Tuesday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-affiliated firm in Raleigh, N.C. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

First and foremost, this poll shows Whitehouse is far from invincible next year.

The first-term Democrat’s approval rating stands at 49%, with a 38% disapproval rating and 13% unsure. In two-way matchups, he polls below the key 50% mark against Avedisian and Robitaille, and is barely over 50% against Cianci and Loughlin. That will be a reason for concern in the Whitehouse camp, though it’s still very, very early with nearly two years before the election.

Diving in, the results for top-tier G.O.P. prospects Avedisian and Carcieri are illuminating – and point to the damage done to Carcieri’s reputation by his eight years as governor. Avedisian told me Monday he is considering jumping into the race, and Carcieri is thought to be doing the same.

Both Republicans won the exact same level of support among poll respondents: 37%. But the number of undecided voters drops by half with Carcieri in the race: 16% are undecided on Whitehouse-Avedisian, whereas only 8% are undecided on Whitehouse-Carcieri. And that benefits Whitehouse – he gets 54% against Carcieri, but only 47% against Avedisian.

Loughlin and Robitaille are more conservative than Avedisian, but the results for two-way races pitting Whitehouse against them are similar to if he runs against the Warwick mayor.

Neither man will probably  jump into this contest, though; Robitaille has his eye on another bid for governor in 2014, and Loughlin is more likely to opt for a 1st District rematch against Congressman David Cicilline, who defeated him last fall.

And then there’s Buddy.

The one-time Republican served six terms as mayor of Providence – and four and a half years as a federal inmate – before embarking on his new career as a talk-radio host.

Cianci’s favorability rating of 44% is higher than those of any of the Republicans tested in the poll, including Carcieri (41%) and Avedisian (36%). And if this survey is accurate, there are still plenty of Rhode Islanders ready to cast a ballot for him. (See my chart of favorability ratings at the bottom.)

In a two-man race, Whitehouse gets 51% to Cianci’s 35%, with 14% undecided. But looking past Whitehouse’s 16-point lead, Cianci is only polling two points behind Avedisian and Carcieri – and keeps far more voters undecided than Carcieri.

In three-way matchups that tested Whitehouse and Cianci against Republicans Carcieri and Robitaille, Buddy has the backing of 22% and 24% in the poll, respectively, cutting into both major-party candidates’ bases.

Tom Jensen, Public Policy Polling’s director, told me his firm included Cianci in the poll after seeking suggestions on Twitter and learning a lot of people were curious how the former mayor would fare, though “not necessarily because there’s a serious possibility of him running.”

After the jump I put the full poll results for seven two-way and three-way matchups for Rhode Island’s 2012 Senate race. Then I have a chart showing the favorability ratings for the five potential Whitehouse opponents polled.

  • Whitehouse 47%
  • Avedisian 37%
  • undecided 16%
  • Whitehouse 54%
  • Carcieri 37%
  • undecided 8%
  • Whitehouse 43%
  • Carcieri 31%
  • Cianci 22%
  • undecided 4%
  • Whitehouse 51%
  • Cianci 35%
  • undecided 14%
  • Whitehouse 51%
  • Loughlin 34%
  • undecided 15%
  • Whitehouse 49%
  • Robitaille 38%
  • undecided 13%
  • Whitehouse 44%
  • Robitaille 28%
  • Cianci 24%
  • undecided 4%

As I mentioned earlier, the poll also put Whitehouse’s approval rating at 49%, with 38% disapproval and 13% unsure. Here’s what PPP got for favorability ratings for the five would-be opponents:

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