PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Democratic Congressman David Cicilline is clinging to a wafer-thin lead over Republican challenger Brendan Doherty with just a week to go before voters head to the polls, according to an exclusive WPRI 12 poll released Tuesday night.
The new survey of 300 likely voters in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District shows Cicilline at 43%, Doherty at 42% and independent David Vogel at 6%, with 8% of voters undecided. Doherty has slashed Cicilline's lead from six points to just one since the previous WPRI 12 poll a month ago.
"That lead has evaporated," WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said. "Right now the race for Congress is a dead heat. ... It looks like it's coming down to the 8% undecided voters who will make a decision in this race come Nov. 6th."
"Traditionally undecided voters tend to go toward the challenger, so that would be a plus for Brendan Doherty at this point," Fleming said. "But again it's a very Democratic district, and because it's a Democratic district you really are not that sure." In 2010, Cicilline defeated Republican John Loughlin 51% to 45%.
The telephone interview poll with 601 likely Rhode Island voters was conducted Oct. 24 to 27 by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4 percentage points on statewide questions and 5.66 points on questions in a congressional district.
Doherty ahead with independents
The poll confirms Cicilline made a comeback during the spring and summer - overcoming what had been a 15-point advantage for Doherty in February - but shows his campaign's momentum stalled this month. Doherty has opened up a 26-point lead with independents and an 11-point lead among voters ages 40 to 59.
"Independents are breaking very strongly for Brendan Doherty right now," Fleming said. "Cicilline seems to be leveling off at 45% [of the vote]. ... He has to move his numbers up higher in order to win this election."
Cicilline made some gains this month. The margin of his lead with voters ages 18 to 39 improved from seven points to 19, and his margin with self-identified Democrats rose from 47 points to 63 points. (Doherty's lead with Republicans is 85 points.) Female voters, however, didn't budge - Cicilline's lead stayed at 13 points.
The new WPRI 12 poll follows a month of nonstop campaigning by Cicilline and Doherty, who've inundated voters with a barrage of television ads, mailers and phone calls and clashed in televised debates.
Cicilline has spent $2 million campaigning and Doherty has spent $1.1 million since the start of last year,
federal filings show. The national party committees both say they're spending
more than $500,000 combined in the final week of the race as they battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013 and 2014.
'Vogel is hurting Brendan Doherty'
One challenge for Doherty is the presence of Vogel, the relatively obscure independent third candidate in the 1st District, who's consistently polling around 6% and appears to be taking part of the anti-Cicilline vote.
"David Vogel is hurting Brendan Doherty in the election at this point because the voters who are voting for him are people who look like they are very disenchanted with David Cicilline, but they will not vote for Brendan Doherty at this point," Fleming said.
Cicilline made gains earlier in the year with a nationally-focused message tying Doherty to the Republican Party, a potent appeal in the heavily Democratic 1st District. The poll finds Cicilline winning 74% of Democrats but only 28% of independents. Fleming said he needs a new message to reach the remaining undecideds.
"How does he move the last 3% or 4% to his column in order to squeak out an election victory?" he asked.
Voter turnout may decide the outcome, Fleming said. Cicilline will need a strong showing from his base in traditionally Democratic areas such as Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, while Doherty will need to roll up big margins in Blackstone Valley communities such as Cumberland, Lincoln, Smithfield and North Smithfield.
Independents' disapproval 'very high'
Cicilline's weak approval rating is basically unchanged from a month ago as the first-term lawmaker tries to solidify his standing with voters after taking severe criticism for his misleading 2010 statements about Providence's finances.
The congressman's job performance is rated excellent or good by 36% of 1st District voters, down from 38% in September but up from 22% in February, while 59% rate his performance fair or poor, up from 56% in September but down from 65% in February. About 70% of independents rate Cicilline's job performance as fair or poor.
"That's a very high number," Fleming said. "Brendan Doherty has that lead with independents, and if he could increase that lead that could propel him to victory. ... It's going to be very tough for David Cicilline to get any of those independent voters from Brendan Doherty."
Voters continue to grow more familiar with Doherty, the former state police superintendent who is seeking to become the first Republican to represent the 1st District since Ron Machtley retired in 1994.
The new poll finds opinions of Doherty are 51% positive and 25% negative, compared with 46% positive and 22% negative last month, with another 24% knowing too little about him to express a judgment. Fleming said Cicilline's campaign was effective in souring Democrats on Doherty but much less so with independents.