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Updated: Tuesday, 28 Aug 2012, 12:18 AM EDT
Published : Monday, 27 Aug 2012, 5:52 PM EDT
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Anthony Gemma is losing ground in his Democratic primary campaign against Congressman David Cicilline, as nearly half of likely voters remain unfamiliar with the two-time candidate, an exclusive WPRI 12 poll released Monday evening shows.
The new survey of 302 likely Democratic primary voters in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District puts Cicilline at 43% and Gemma at 31%, with 17% undecided and 4% supporting Chris Young. In 2010, Cicilline won the four-way primary to succeed Patrick Kennedy with 37% of the vote. Gemma was second with 23%.
Cicilline has opened up a 12-point lead over Gemma since the May WPRI 12 poll, when Gemma was just four points behind the incumbent. "The poll in May was good news for Anthony Gemma - this poll is good news for David Cicilline," WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said.
The telephone interview poll was conducted last Sunday through Wednesday by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I., mostly before Gemma's high-profile Wednesday news conference alleging voter fraud. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 5.7 percentage points.
The poll indicates Cicilline is in good shape heading into the Sept. 11 primary and suggests Gemma's decision not to run TV commercials has left voters with little sense of him.
"David Cicilline basically tripled his lead since the last poll we did," Fleming said. "There hasn't really been a high level of visibility from Anthony Gemma. ... He's still not that well-known."
Men, seniors move to Cicilline
Shifts in the electorate help explain Cicilline's growing advantage over Gemma.
Among male voters, Gemma's 2-point lead in May is now a 7-point advantage for Cicilline. Voters ages 60 and older now give Cicilline 42% to Gemma's 30%, a 10-point drop for Gemma over three months. Cicilline's lead among "very likely" primary voters has doubled to 14 points.
"Obviously I'm happy that we're moving in the right direction," Cicilline told WPRI.com on Monday. "But I can guarantee that I will continue to work 18 hours a day, as if I'm 10 points behind."
Over the last three months Cicilline has been campaigning energetically, running TV ads that started during the Olympics and sending mailers to voters. Gemma's campaign had been much quieter until last week's press conference, relying largely on signs and small events.
"They may know the name, but they don't know much about him," Fleming said.
Gemma sees 'plenty of time'
With 17% of primary voters undecided, Fleming said there's still an avenue to victory for Gemma - particularly since two-thirds of those voters give Cicilline a negative job approval rating. Gemma's fate will likely be decided by turnout, reaction to the voter fraud allegations and his performance in Tuesday night's WPRI 12 debate, he said.
"The key for the campaigns is going to be to identify their voters and get them out to vote, and that's where a strong grassroots operation will come out to play in this primary," Fleming said. Cicilline's campaign manager told supporters Monday he will launch "a massive get-out-the-vote operation" next week.
With two weeks to go before voters head to the polls, Gemma argued there's still "plenty of time" for him to close the gap.
"This certainly is more of a marathon than a sprint," he told WPRI.com on Monday. "People have to get to know me a little bit more and they're going to start to zero in and tune into this race."
Cicilline's negative rating falling
The poll isn't all good news for Cicilline.
The first-term congressman is still struggling to win over a majority of primary voters, though his job rating has improved from 61% negative in May to 52% negative now. "There's no group where he's running strongly and who feel he's doing a great job," Fleming said. "But there are some groups that are starting to move his way."
Cicilline's biggest problem is with primary voters between the ages of 40 and 59, with 65% of them giving him a negative rating. "Those middle-age voters who are struggling with their paychecks are the ones who are concerned with him now," Fleming said.
President Obama is running better than Cicilline among 1st District Democratic primary voters, with 56% of them giving the president a positive job rating compared with only 40% for Cicilline, a 16-point gap.
Gemma has also added slightly more support than Cicilline since they squared off in the four-way Democratic primary two years ago. Gemma's share in the poll is eight points higher than the 23% of the vote he received in September 2010, while Cicilline's share as the elected congressman is up six points.
Providence's finances a key issue
Voters say Providence's budget is still weighing on their minds four months after Cicilline apologized for characterizing the near-bankrupt city's financial condition as "excellent" during his last campaign. More than three out of four described Providence's finances as a very or somewhat important issue in the election.
"Anthony Gemma should be hitting on that," Fleming said. "You have an issue that's David Cicilline's Achilles heel, and Anthony Gemma has not reinforced it. If I'm [Republican candidate] Brendan Doherty I'm still going to be talking about the city of Providence and the trust issue - 'you can trust me, you can believe me.'"
Gemma last week alleged voter fraud by Cicilline's political associates, but the poll finds little evidence of concern among primary voters about the issue - though most of the survey was conducted prior to Gemma's press conference.
The poll finds 64% of primary voters are very or somewhat confident that Rhode Island elections are fair and honest, compared with 31% who say they are less than confident or not confident at all about the integrity of the process.
Copyright WPRI 12
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