WPRI has given watchers of politics in Rhode Island another poll to chew over, and as usual, much of the public analysis would benefit from another layer of analysis.
The big takeaway, thus far, has been that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo “has actually opened up a lead,” in the words of pollster Joe Fleming. Reporter Ted Nesi’s summary goes on to state that “Raimondo and [Republican challenger Allan] Fung are evenly matched when it comes to voters’ views about them personally.” Thus, the story appears, at first glance, to be that Raimondo has moved up about four percentage points while Fung has remained stuck, with Independent Joe Trillo taking the tie from Fung.
Looking at the full results compared with the July numbers, though, suggests this common wisdom might miss the underlying story. There’s a lot going on in the following chart, but take a moment to sort through it. Blue is for Democrats, red for Republicans, and yellow for independents. The lighter shade is the response in July, and the darker shade is the response in September.
So what’s the story for each party?
- Among Democrats (around 38% of respondents), Raimondo lost ground by seven percentage points. About half of them went to candidates not listed here, and the bulk of the rest went to Fung. Note, too, that about one-tenth of Democrats remain unsure.
- Among Republicans (around 15% of respondents), the biggest take-away is that they’ve almost all made up their minds. Fung’s support grew by 11 points in this group, with Raimondo and Trillo splitting the rest of the gains, which came not only from July’s “not sure,” but also from the other minor candidates.
- Turning to the largest group, Independents (around 46% of respondents), about half of July’s Not Sures made up their minds, and they went in a big way for Raimondo. A few seem to have switched from other minor candidates to Trillo, and Fung lost ground.
This landscape looks like it puts Raimondo on the defensive (albeit, defending a lead). She’s gone pretty far Left, and she continues to be dogged by incompetency scandals, so it could be that her attack strategy against Brown cost her among progressives and she’s having a difficult time sealing the deal with that 10% block of Democrats who aren’t sure. Meanwhile, heated talk among supporters of Fung’s primary opponents may, for the moment, be convincing Republicans and Independents that there really is no difference between the two major party candidates.
That leaves Raimondo having to woo Brown supporters without drawing too big of a distinction between herself and Fung, so as not to remind more-conservative voters of the difference. It also leaves her still having to prove either that she is more competent than skeptics think or that Fung is even less competent. The first point will be difficult, this late in the game, and the second point is fraught because her attacks could lose her some Rs and Is.
Breaking things out this way also suggests that Trillo shouldn’t be Fung’s central concern, except to the extent that he has to keep him from making gains. Both for those who lean Raimondo and for those who lean Trillo, Fung’s best play is to present himself as an alternative to Raimondo, and not worry the idea that Trillo is an alternative to him. Fighting Trillo will only make Fung look more establishment while solidifying the anger of those who opposed him in the primaries.
Fung’s strategy of not engaging with Patricia Morgan much during the primaries was probably a good one, politically, because he left open his ability to appeal to moderate Democrats as well as Independents in the moderate range. Raimondo’s big bump among Independents suggests that those who remain unsure might be the more Republican-leaning.
This is where nuance on favorability is important. Nesi is incorrect to say that Raimondo and Fung are “evenly matched” on this score. Yes, they both have 50% favorability, but Raimondo has 47% unfavorability to his 35%. Moreover, results for Raimondo’s job performance have arguably turned more negative, although they haven’t changed much since July.
For these reasons, Fleming’s emphasis seems misplaced when he insists that Fung “has to try and distance himself” from President Trump. Rather, he should strive to make that seem irrelevant. The Republican candidate for governor isn’t running against the Republican president of the United States, but against the Democrat governor of Rhode Island, and voters in blue states can draw that distinction, as Governor Charlie Baker is proving next door in Massachusetts. Fung will never out-Resistance Raimondo.
With attack ads against Brown and, immediately after the primary, against Fung — and even a tendency to bicker on Twitter — the Raimondo campaign has shown an affinity for ruthlessness. (One might even suspect that they like it and look for justification.) If Fung has to distance himself from anything, it may be this sort of behavior.