Congressional Corner With Tim Vercellotti | WAMC

Congressional Corner With Tim Vercellotti

Aug 19, 2020

August is usually a quiet time for politics, but not this year.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Tim Vercellotti of the Western New England University poll and professor of political science speaks with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

Alan Chartock: It's the Congressional Corner. Delighted to be here with Tim Vercellotti, Director of the Western New England University Poll, Professor of Political Science and the go-to guy when it comes to all the questions that all of us have. All right, Tim Vercellotti. I got lots of questions for you. I don't know if they're opposed. But everybody wants to know how the Kennedy/Markey race is going. Have you had a look at that?

Tim Vercellotti: Well, I have to say there's been a lot to talk about in terms of Kennedy/Markey. A number of debates this summer, and there have been a few polls out. The most recent was a UMass Amherst poll done with YouGov that showed a pretty healthy lead for Senator Markey. 51% to 36% for Congressman Kennedy with about 12% undecided. It's a survey done on YouGov as opposed to a traditional telephone survey. But the folks over at UMass have a pretty sophisticated methodology about matching the participants in the survey with what the electorate might look like for a primary. So it's absolutely a set of numbers we ought to be paying attention to.

Now, this is pretty interesting considering the fact that when a race was announced by Kennedy, he was at a very formidable lead. I think I read somewhere 17 points. And it's obviously been turned around.

It's true. Yeah. And even the last poll that UMass did back in February, they had Markey up by three. So there had been a bit of progress there. But yeah, this race has absolutely shifted. Some might argue, in terms of internal polling, the campaigns say they're seeing a much closer race and no one should be complacent about getting out the vote. But this really did at least early on appear to be Kennedy's to lose because a lot of people hadn't really formed opinions about Markey. He’s labored in the shadow of Elizabeth Warren since making it to the Senate in 2013. And so this does reflect increased name recognition, a lot more public familiarity with the senator.

What's interesting about Senator Markey is that he has taken a sort of leftist position, vis a vis Kennedy. He's basically said, you know, Green New Deal and AOC endorsed him. And now we see incumbents losing with some regularity these days. He's an incumbent, but he took a different path.

He did, and Medicare for All is another area where he's tried to draw a distinction between himself and Congressman Kennedy. And so it is interesting to see how this race the dynamic is somewhat different. Markey’s not being challenged from the left. He might be challenged from the center left. And so this doesn't fit into that overall narrative of centrist Democrats or center left Democrats falling to challenges from progressives, which we've seen in other parts of the country.

Now into all of this. We have a Republican governor here in Massachusetts, where I'm talking to you from, here in Massachusetts. I'm in Massachusetts. How's that Republican governor doing?

Well, Charlie Baker still seems to be doing very well. There's been some recent polling that again, puts his favor ability above 70%. And if there had been some polling showing that more than 80% of the public had approved of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which really has been the central issue that has kept him in the public eye these past few months

As a Republican, the question is, you know, Republicans, especially in blue states, like Massachusetts and New York, have a tough time because of their proximity to you know who, the president.

Yeah. And it's very interesting to watch the party schism here in Massachusetts. The leadership of the party is much more supportive of President Trump. And Governor Baker has taken great pains to keep his distance from the administration. Now he's not a critic of Trump, and he did recently meet with Vice President Pence on a visit that Pence made to Massachusetts, but Baker has been very careful to chart his own course, in terms of Republican politics, and that certainly seemed to work to his advantage in terms of public approval of the job he's doing.

But, but as I've often said, quoting myself, which is always dangerous, he has become what we can only call a Republicrat. And you know he has not offended Democrats. The one way he could do that is to get too chummy with the President.

Right. Right. And he has so far threaded that needle pretty well, of not getting too chummy with the president. But at the same time, not being an outspoken critic, either. You can point to other Republican leaders around the country who have been more critical say Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, even the former governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has worked very hard to distinguish himself from Trump. Charlie Baker's not interested in doing that. I imagine he sees no upside to that. And I think just in comparison to the president, that helps his popularity in Massachusetts, as someone who is less caught up in ideological wars, less caught up in personal grudges, and really focused much more on service delivery and handling crisis, as he is with the pandemic.

Let's talk a little bit about the Republican Party in Massachusetts. Is it dead?

Well, it is struggling, no question about it. It does not have a lot of power. Its bench seems pretty shallow in terms of statewide office, candidates for statewide office. And I think this may reflect the internal divisions in the party as to whether to accept President Trump in a full embrace, or draw some distinctions. If we think about the president's popularity in Massachusetts, it's very, very low. And even Republicans when you ask them, there will be some strong divisions there. And so regardless of the outcome in November, I think the Republican Party is going to have to spend the next few years searching within itself for the post Trump path. What direction do they want to take in terms of Trump's views on immigration, for example, the role of government in people's lives? Just fundamental issues in a country that is demographically changing, that's getting blacker and browner with each census. The Republican Party really has some hard thinking to do in the coming years.

Okay, so I want to talk to you just a little bit about another race that a lot of people are looking at, and that is the Neal Morse primary. Do we have any numbers on that at all?

No polling numbers that I'm aware of.

How come?

Well, it's because it's a house primary. Simply identifying likely voters within the boundaries of a congressional district for late summer primary. That can be needles in a haystack. It's pretty difficult. You could work from registered voter rolls, but it's hard to predict who's going to show up because we haven't had a competitive primary in the first district in ages. So it's hard to predict. I believe it was the Morse campaign leaked some internal polling to the news media recently. But I'm very cautious about internal polling. Generally, campaign consultants will provide multiple scenarios and the one that gets leaked is often the most favorable one. Until they provide the full methodology, I'd say be a little bit leery when a campaign is putting out those numbers. Having said that, the numbers they put out showed Morse down by 10 points. And this was prior to the current controversy.

I'm sorry for interrupting, Tim, but this is their own poll, right? In other words, they were down by 10 points in their own poll?

Right, right. And the timing of the leaking of that information is useful, because we just passed an important fundraising deadline. Candidates for Congress had until October 12 to raise money for the next reporting deadline, which is August 20. That's the final deadline before the September 1 primary. And by showing a poll that at least has the challenger within some kind of striking distance, that helps to encourage donors either to give for the first time or to give again, thinking that their money is going to be well spent. So that's often why we see internal polls go out, it's to reassure the current donors and encourage some new ones.

You may have they'll reference very quickly to something that has happened with Morse’s campaign. We all know what it is by now or should. I don't want to go into it anymore. It's been beaten to death. But it has hurt him.

I think it has taken him off his message. The old adage in politics is when you're explaining, you're losing, and I have seen in recent days that he has been trying to get back on message. He did a sit down with the editorial board for our local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he did, once he answered questions about the issues that have come up recently, he then focused on his issue positions, his critiques of Richard Neal, his differences with the candidate, and that's really where he's got to head in the closing days of the primary. He's just got to hammer home. His differences with the candidate on substance, on policy to remind voters of why they should consider voting for him in the primary.

Is it a matter of age? I mean, I think what's happened is some of the challengers in these long serving congressmen have been looking for the youth vote. I only have a minute but do you think that's what's happening here?

Well, it certainly could be. What we know for primaries is that young people are less likely to turn out, that it tends to be older voters. And although Massachusetts primaries are open to unenrolled, voters, we tend to see the strong partisans turnout for them. And so what Alex Morse might be trying to do is mobilize young people who don't ordinarily show up to pull off it'd be quite an upset at this point. But if he turns out the youth vote, that’s certainly to his favor. It's an uphill struggle, though, when you're the challenger, and you're up against a powerful incumbent, particularly one who is airing ads where Nancy Pelosi says she needs Richard Neal right where he is. She's one of the most revered figures in the party. That's a tough message to go up against for any challenger.

Tim Vercellotti is director of the Western New England University poll, professor of political science. Tim, we always love having you here. WAMC, of course, has had an extensive series of interviews with Mr. Morse and you can find them by going to WAMC.org. Thanks again, Tim.

You're welcome.