Democrat Elizabeth Warren has opened up a lead against Republican incumbent Scott Brown for the first time in their U.S. Senate showdown, but a barrage of attack ads appears to have damaged Warren and Brown’s standing among Massachusetts voters, a new University of Massachusetts at Lowell/Boston Herald poll shows.
Warren leads Brown by a 49-42 percent margin, outside the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points. That number includes voters who say they are "leaning" for either candidate. But even without the "leaners," Warren still leads by a 46-41 percent margin, barely within the margin of error.
The poll of 505 registered Massachusetts voters was conducted for UMass-Lowell by Princeton Survey Research from Dec. 1 - Dec. 6, and shows Warren with her largest lead yet in the campaign. A UMass-Lowell/Boston Herald poll taken in late September showed Brown ahead by a 41-38 percent margin, so the new poll represents a 10-point swing in Warren’s favor in less than two months.
"I think she’s got the smarts to do a better job than our incumbent," said Dick Morrison, a Newton independent who participated in the UMass-Lowell/Herald poll. Morrison said he voted for Brown in the January 2010 special election against Martha Coakley, but is now disappointed in the Republican’s performance. "He’s a fence sitter. If he’s going to be a leader he should be a leader."
The new poll results are bound to send more shockwaves across the country, where Democrats and Republicans are closely watching to see whether the Harvard Law professor can knock off one of the GOP’s rising stars. The Massachusetts race could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and Democrats are making the race one of their top priorities.
"Clearly Warren has made some gains over the past month and a half," said Mike Mokrzycki, a consultant who produced the poll for UMass-Lowell.
The UMass-Lowell/Herald poll reveals Brown’s popularity has dropped significantly since Warren essentially wrapped up the Democratic nomination and a pro-Warren interest group, the League of Conservation voters, began a blitz of negative ads against Brown. Brown’s job approval rating has dropped eight points to 45 percent in the last two months.
And less than half of Massachusetts voters - 48 percent - now say they have a favorable view of the Republican from Wrentham, down from 52 percent in the UMass-Lowell/Herald poll in late September. The percentage of voters who say they have an unfavorable view of Brown has increased from 29 to 35 percent, according to the poll.
But Warren has also apparently suffered from a Karl Rove-led TV attack ad campaign, which focuses on her stated support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just 18 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Warren in late September, and that number has now jumped nine points to 27 percent. Warren’s favorable numbers have increased only slightly, from 30 to 34 percent.
Warren has also inundated the airwaves with a positive ad about her background, and is much better known by Massachusetts voters now, with just 23 percent saying they have never heard of her, compared to 37 percent in September.
"It seems that the attack ads are hurting both of them," Mokrzycki said. "Many voters may be getting a negative first impression (of Warren)."
Brown still leads Warren among independent voters by a wide margin, 53-37 percent, according to the poll. But because there are so few Republicans in Massachusetts, Brown is far short of the support from independents he needs to be competitive in the 2012 election, according to most analysts.
The poll also shows that the race remains extremely volatile, with more than half of Massachusetts voters saying they still could change their mind. Among voters who say they have definitely made up their minds, Warren leads Brown by 24-21 percent.
"The election is 11 months off," Mokrzycki said. "There’s going to be a long campaign...and the situation may change."
But Warren right now appears to be winning the battle of campaign messages, according to Mokrzycki. Asked who would do a better job of looking out for middle class families, 43 percent of voters cite Warren and 33 percent identify Brown. Nearly half of Massachusetts voters also say Warren would do a better job of regulating Wall Street institutions. And more than a third of Massachusetts voters say they are less likely to back Brown because of campaign donations from Wall Street, a main theme of the Democratic attack against the incumbent.
"That can’t be good news for (Brown)," Mokrzycki said. "It appears that Warren’s message about the middle class has more resonance at this point."
Warren does have some potential vulnerabilities, including the fact that she is heavily favored by younger voters, who are less likely to vote. But the fact that she is a Harvard Law professor is not hurting her, according to the poll.
Warren’s support for Occupy Wall Street is having some negative effect on her campaign, but not a very significant one right now. Just 23 percent of voters say they are less likely to back her because of her OWS position, while 16 percent say it makes them more likely to support her.
But the Occupy movement appears to be unpopular, even in heavily liberal Massachusetts. One third of voters say they oppose the Occupy movement, with just 26 percent voicing support. The poll also shows the Tea Party movement continues to be extremely unpopular in Massachusetts.