PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Congressman David Cicilline holds a slim lead over his Democratic primary opponent Anthony Gemma with less than four months to go before voters will decide which man should face Republican Brendan Doherty, an exclusive WPRI 12 poll released Wednesday evening shows.
The new survey of 302 likely Democratic primary voters in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District puts Cicilline at 40% and Gemma at 36%, with 20% undecided. Cicilline won the four-way 2010 primary with 37% of the vote, ahead of Gemma with 23%, and David Segal and Bill Lynch with 20% each.
The poll shows the Sept. 11 party primary will be competitive, WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said. "Brendan Doherty is the big winner," he said. The Republican can "sit back and let David Cicilline and Anthony Gemma spend a lot of money" beating each other up, giving the winner less than two months to take him on alone.
- Interactive: Full results of the poll
The telephone interview poll was conducted last Tuesday through Saturday by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 5.7 percentage points. It's the first public poll in the primary race.
Doherty, the Rhode Island State Police's former superintendent, had a double-digit lead over both Democrats in a WPRI 12 poll of 1st District voters conducted in February, even though the district is heavily Democratic.
Gemma an unknown quantity
Both Democrats can find reasons for optimism in the poll.
Cicilline was finishing his second term as mayor of Providence when he won the retiring Patrick Kennedy's seat in 2010. With the city now facing bankruptcy, Cicilline was recently forced to apologize for describing its financial condition as "excellent" less than two years ago.
- Video Web Extra: Analysis with Joe Fleming
While the new poll finds 61% of primary voters give Cicilline a negative job approval rating, Fleming said the worst may be behind the incumbent. "If I am David Cicilline, with everything that has happened to me over the last 18 months, this may be good because I've already hit bottom and I'm on the way up now," he said.
"Anthony Gemma on the other hand can say, 'Hey, I'm within 4% of an incumbent congressman and there are still 20% of the voters undecided at this time,'" Fleming continued. Gemma, a businessman and political neophyte, jumped into the race last month and remains little known despite placing second in 2010.
The polls shows primary voters' opinions about Gemma are 38% favorable and 17% unfavorable, with nearly half - 45% - saying they aren't sure what they think. "It could be good for him in a sense that he could define himself in a positive way, but at the same time it gives David Cicilline the opportunity to define Anthony Gemma the way he wants to define him," Fleming said.
'We have impeccable character'
Cicilline said he always approaches a race as if he's trailing no matter what the polls show. But he was also quick to highlight Gemma's lack of traditional Democratic Party credentials or history with the party.
"There are a lot of similarities between the Republican challenger in this race and Mr. Gemma," Cicilline said. "They are both anti-choice. They both supported Governor [Donald] Carcieri and the policies that hurt our state and many cities and towns in Rhode Island. They both have talked about letting tax cuts expire on the middle class."
Gemma donated money to Carcieri shortly before the Republican won his second term in office in 2006, but says he did so because of the former governor's pro-business policies. "There are already personal character attacks on me, which is unfortunate because my character - just like Mr. Doherty, we have impeccable character," Gemma said.
Asked whether he'll make Cicilline's record in Providence a campaign issue, Gemma said: "I think at this point David's record speaks for itself. I believe I don't have to do that anymore. Maybe that was the last election cycle. This election is going to be about voters getting to know me, what I have done and what I am capable of doing."
Primary voters are split on which Democrat has a better chance of defeating Doherty in the general election, with 34% choosing Cicilline, 31% choosing Gemma and 29% saying they're not sure.
Seniors, turnout will be crucial
Cicilline holds a 36-point lead over Gemma among voters ages 18 to 39 and smaller leads among women, while Gemma holds a 7-point lead among voters ages 40 to 50 and is slightly ahead among men. Union members support Cicilline, 38% to 33%.
The two candidate are basically tied among the pivotal group of voters age 60 and older. "That's the group that is really going to decide the election, because they are divided at this point," Fleming said. Social Security and Medicare are likely to figure heavily in the candidates' public comments, he said.
Fleming pointed out that Cicilline has a 7-point lead among those who say they're likely to vote, while they are basically tied among those who say they're somewhat likely to vote. That could help Cicilline in a low turnout primary, because it means he's ahead among "traditional Democratic voters who always vote," he said.
Another interesting nugget: 31% of voters who don't have an opinion about Gemma say they're planning to vote for him anyway. Fleming described them as the anybody-but-Cicilline voters. Fleming also emphasized that one in five voters still aren't sure whom they'll support.
"Traditionally undecideds break more toward the challenger," he said. "However, in this case with all the negatives that David Cicilline has ... the opportunity is there for David Cicilline to move these voters to his side."
For Cicilline, "if I can't bring my positive numbers up I need to bring Anthony Gemma's positive numbers down," Fleming said. "You might see a lot of negative campaigning here."
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