Liberals and the new RI gubernatorial poll

WPRI superblogger Ted Nesi delivered new Public Policy Polling figures on the nascent Rhode Island gubernatorial race this morning. And the headlines were not entirely surprising: Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, is the early frontrunner and Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, faces a tough road to re-election.

But the most intriguing part of the poll may be what it tells us about the early shape of the Democratic primary (PPP polled 614 Rhode Island voters, including 320 Democratic primary voters. The latter group answered questions about whom they favor in a primary. The margin of error is 5.5 percent).

That primary could feature any combination of Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, former Auditor General Ernie Almonte, and Chafee, a moderate Republican-turned-independent who has suggested he might complete his metamorphosis and run for re-election as a Democrat next year.

Raimondo leads the field whether it includes Chafee or not. And interestingly, Chafee finishes ahead of the much more popular Taveras in a four-way contest. Here are the numbers:

Four-way: Raimondo - 35%, Chafee 22%, Taveras 19%, Almonte 11%

Three-way: Raimondo - 44%; Taveras - 35%; Almonte 9%

One could argue her numbers are weak, given the glowing press coverage she's received to date and her position as a statewide pol. One could say she hasn't faced much scrutiny yet and that Democrats - and liberals in particular - will migrate to Taveras or Chafee once the campaign begins.

I'm not so convinced that she should have a commanding lead, at this point, on two well-known rivals - one of whom, Taveras, has sky-high approval ratings. But there is a reasonable case to be made for her rivals, Taveras in particular, cutting into her liberal support as the campaign heats up.

Taveras fares better among liberals when it comes to favorability ratings. Seventy-five percent of respondents to the January 28-30 poll who identified themselves as "very liberal" said they view Taveras favorably, compared to 12 percent who view him unfavorably. The split was 72-16 for those who consider themselves "somewhat liberal."

Chafee's splits were 57-32 for "very liberal" voters and 54-34 for "somewhat liberal" voters. Raimondo's splits were 59-23 for "very liberal" voters and 59-18 for "somewhat liberal" voters.

But if Taveras has a beachhead among the liberals who power Democratic primaries, he hasn't yet converted his favorability ratings into concrete support. In the four-way, Democratic primary matchup PPP tested - Raimondo-Chafee-Taveras-Almonte - Raimondo led among "very liberal" and "somewhat liberal" voters.

In the three-way matchup - Raimondo-Taveras-Almonte - Taveras had a slight edge over Raimondo among "very liberal" voters - 44-42 - but trailed by a substantial margin among the larger population of "somewhat liberal" voters - 48-35. Raimondo's lead is even bigger among self-identified "moderate" voters.

There is an argument to be made that moderates and conservatives won't vote in the Democratic primary in large numbers, even if they tell pollsters they will. And when you look at the Raimondo-Taveras-Almonte race by party identification, rather than ideology, you find Raimondo has only a slight edge over Taveras among Democrats, 41-39, with much larger leads among the independents and Republicans.

Nonetheless, Raimondo's team, which told me last month that it expects to have a stronger hold on liberal voters than some observers imagine, has to be pleased with the results of the poll. The lefty path around her in a Democratic primary is not yet a clear one, especially when you consider that Democrats, "very liberal," and "somewhat liberal" voters favor her signature pension reform legislation - Exhibit A in the case against her as a Republican in disguise - by wide margins.

Taveras, for his part, has to be disappointed that he trails both Raimondo and Chafee in a possible four-way Democratic contest. But he can still make a case for real potential among the liberals who power the party's primaries.

The governor can't like much of what he sees. But switching to the Democratic Party seems, increasingly, like his best shot at re-election - particularly if he can convince Taveras to stay out of the race and give him a clear shot at the party's liberal base.

Note: I've updated this post to include some of the arguments against Raimondo's strength in the poll.

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