The Cicilline-Doherty Polls

The battle between Democratic Congressman David Cicilline and Republican Brendan Doherty has focused squarely, in recent days, on dueling polls.

But much of the chatter about those polls is misguided. I'll get to that shortly. First, the basics on the survey.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the House Democrats' campaign wing, has commissioned two polls in Rhode Island's First Congressional District recent weeks - one a bare-bones, robo-call survey and the other a more sophisticated poll. The DCCC would not release the full polls. But it has claimed, in recent days, that they gave Cicilline leads of six and 11 points, respectively, over Doherty.

Then this morning, the Cicilline campaign released a memo from its own pollster, the Feldman Group, reporting that a September 13-17 poll gave the Democrat a 46-36 lead over Doherty, with independent David Vogel claiming support from 7 percent of respondents. The campaign has declined to release the full poll.

The release of the three polls has put pressure on the Doherty camp to counter with a poll of its own. Doherty's campaign manager, Ian Prior, declined this morning to release the full results of a September 12-13 survey from its pollster OnMessage Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia.

But as I first reported in this space this morning, Prior does say the poll gives Doherty a lead over Cicilline - a lead that falls within the survey's margin of error of four points.

Cicilline's camp questions the validity of the poll. The sample was 52% registered independents, 32% registered Democrats and 14% registered Republicans, which it considers an unrealistic representation of the likely electorate. Cicilline's poll was 47% Democrats, 44% independents and 9% Republicans. “We can only speak for this campaign – we don’t spend any money on feel-good polling,” Cicilline campaign manager Eric Hyers told WPRI. “If other campaigns want to do polls that are designed to get them numbers they can use in the press or fundraising, that’s fine. It’s not what we do.”

Whatever the count, one thing is clear. The race has shifted significantly since the last independent poll: a WPRI survey in February that gave Doherty a 15-point edge.

That's the big-picture takeaway. But there's much more to these polls.

Doherty's campaign allowed me to review a portion of its survey. I've also chatted with Hyers and DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin. Here's my analysis, in six parts:

The Message

It's always good to look like a winner. But it's imperative for Cicilline in this race. He's appeared on all kinds of national lists of vulnerable incumbents. And that kind of press can draw outside money - from Washington Republicans or independent expenditure groups.

Democrats, no doubt, hope the recent raft of polls can tamp down the chatter about Cicilline's vulnerability and convince outside money to invest elsewhere. We'll see if it works.

The Providence Play

Cicilline was still serving as mayor of Providence when he ran for Congress in 2010. His campaign declaration that the city was in "excellent" fiscal condition came back to bite him after the election. Indeed, that's what has made him vulnerable in a deep-blue district.

A golocalprov story on the latest DCCC survey quoted local pollster Victor Profughi interpreting Cicilline's lead as proof that attacks on his mayoralty aren't working - and won't work going forward. “It seems very unlikely that Cicilline will be beaten by a rerun negative campaign which tries to link him with his fiscal record in Providence,” Profughi said. “Others have been there, done that, and it hasn't worked. It's even less likely to succeed in a general election, with Obama on the ticket.”

There may, indeed, be limits on the effectiveness of a Providence-based attack. But Profughi's "been there, done that" analysis looks flawed to me. There really hasn't been a capable, full-fledged attack on Cicilline over his stewardship of the Providence budget - and his truthfulness in discussing it. Cicilline's Democratic primary challenger, Anthony Gemma, wandered off into unsubstantiated charges of voter fraud, rather than hammer the incumbent with the Providence message.

Doherty's poll shows just how ineffective Gemma's effort was: asked, in an open-ended question, to name concerns about Cicilline, just 2 percent mentioned voter fraud.

The top two responses to that question, as recorded by the pollster: "Prov Mayor/Finances" and "Dishonest" (the campaign asked me not to publish the actual percentage of people responding in this way). This is still a live issue - the best possible path to beating Cicilline - and Doherty will key in on it in the coming weeks.

The "Push Poll" Argument

The Doherty campaign has maintained that at least one of the polls, the second DCCC poll, was a "push poll." Democrats, the GOP alleges, launched a smear campaign disguised as a legitimate public opinion survey.

It doesn't appear that was actually the case.

Hyers, of the Cicilline campaign, and Schwerin, of the DCCC, both say the head-to-head polling figures they released came from questions asked at the beginning of the surveys, before any messages about the candidates were tested.

Testing messages - Cicilline is a liar, Doherty signs with John Boehner and Paul Ryan - is standard practice in these kinds of surveys. And that kind of testing appears to be what was at work here. A "push poll," by contrast, tends to make salacious claims about a single candidate in a bid to influence voters.

It would be a little foolish for the DCCC to invest in a push poll at this stage. The group has to make important decisions about where to invest money. It can't afford to make those decisions based on useless data. It has to know just how vulnerable the Democrat is, just how vulnerable the Republican is; what messages might work and what messages might not.

Now, all that said, even the standard message-testing poll can lean one way or another. Perhaps it frames the Democratic position on a hot-button issue a little better than the Republican position, or vice versa; perhaps its choice of which messages to test can bias the outcome a bit.

So take this with a grain of salt. But the Doherty campaign says its lead on Cicilline climbed to almost 10 points - 47.7 percent to 38.2 percent - after testing Democratic and Republican messages with voters.

The Spoiler

The role of third-party candidate David Vogel has won attention with the new polls. Could he pull anti-Cicilline votes from Doherty and put the incumbent over the top? I'm not convinced. Cicilline's pollster asked voters to choose between all three candidates and, then, to choose between Cicilline and Doherty. Cicilline's lead held steady at 10 points in both scenarios. Looks like the Vogel voters are split pretty evenly.

Does Obamacare Play a Role?

The country is divided down the middle on President Obama's health care reform law. A Quinnipiac poll in July found 49 percent in favor the House GOP's effort to repeal the law and 47 percent opposed. Democrats were strongly in favor of the bill. Republicans were intensely opposed. And independents, a key target in any close general election race, favored repeal 49-41.

Cicilline made prominent mention of the law in the primary, as part of a broader effort to paint himself as the true Democrat in the race. No great surprise there.

But it was a bit of a surprise when he attacked Doherty for supporting repeal in his first ad of the general election. And now, the Cicilline camp can point to polling data that supports the play. The Feldman Group, in its memo on the Cicilline poll, says 72 percent of the district's voters back the law and just 22 percent back the GOP position of "repealing the Affordable Care Act completely, and starting the process of health care reform all over again." As that slanted language might suggest, the 72-22 figure came after testing messages on both sides of the issue. The Cicilline campaign declined to say, on the record, what the number was before the messages were laid out. But I get the distinct feeling that Cicilline's team sees a winner here. There may be more advertising on this issue to come.

Doherty's team is skeptical that Obamacare will play all that well for Cicilline - particularly among the independent voters who, they say, will decide the race. Doherty's polling, for what it's worth, suggests the district's electorate is pretty closely divided on the isse, with 41.5 percent in favor of repeal and 47.6 percent in opposition.

The Strategy

This divide on Obamacare's salience underscores a broader split in the two campaigns' strategic views. Prior, Doherty's campaign manager, tells me that Cicilline's "I'm the true Democrat" message in the primary, combined with his liberal voting record, have put him out on the left, while Doherty is fighting from the center, where the election will be won.

The Cicilline campaign sees a more partisan fight. And Hyers, Cicilline's campaign manager, tells me that Doherty is in a tough spot: he's in lock-step, on too many issues, with a Republican agenda that is unpopular in Rhode Island; and the Providence-based attacks he's rolling out on Cicilline have grown stale.

I'm not convinced those attacks are as stale as Hyers would suggest. The insiders, who have been talking about Cicilline's Providence problem for a year-and-a-half now, may be sick of them. But the run-of-the-mill voters who are just now tuning in to the race are not. A "Cicilline lied to you message" could still be quite potent.

Still, as the presidential race kicks into high gear, the political environment is getting heavily inflected with partisanship. Doherty's reach-across-the-aisle argument becomes, perhaps, a little less convincing when the Democratic and Republican approaches to issues like taxes and Medicare take on greater definition.

Forty-seven days 'til the election. We'll see which strategic vision is borne out.


| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Not For Nothing Archives