Five months into his audacious primary challenge against a seasoned incumbent, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III is leading Senator Edward J. Markey in the Democratic contest for Senate, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll of likely voters in the Sept. 1 primary.
The survey found Kennedy ahead of Markey 42 percent to 36 percent, a difference that is within the poll’s margin of error. The race has tightened since Kennedy first decided to mount his bid: A Suffolk/Globe poll conducted just before Kennedy officially entered the race in September found the younger Democrat leading 42 to 28 percent over Markey in a head-to-head matchup.
Markey has cut Kennedy’s lead in half, demonstrating that the incumbent “has a record and a personal history that have appeal,” said poll director David Paleologos.
“He’s a tried and true person,” said Xia Rondeau, a 26-year-old Democrat from Cambridge who is leaning toward supporting Markey.
But the survey had warning signs for Markey. After six-and-a-half years as a senator, and a cumulative 47 years as a Massachusetts elected official, he remains surprisingly undefined in the minds of many voters.
Nearly 28 percent of likely voters said they were “undecided” when asked if Markey deserves to be reelected, and 19 percent of those surveyed likewise answered “undecided” when asked to rate Markey’s job performance.
This uncertainty surrounding his brand provides an opening in the months ahead for either his campaign, or Kennedy, to define who Markey is and what he stands for. So far, Kennedy has demonstrated a fund-raising advantage over Markey, outpacing the incumbent by about $1 million in the final three months of last year and ending the quarter with about $1 million more in the bank, too.
Some Markey supporters are working to pull together a super PAC to support his candidacy, an effort that could help boost familiarity with his progressive record. Organizers say the super PAC would focus on the Malden Democrat’s leadership on climate and environmental issues.
Despite vociferously denouncing such outside spending in his 2013 Senate race, Markey has effectively welcomed the assistance this time, declining Kennedy’s proposal to sign a People’s Pledge to keep outside groups from spending money to influence the race. Instead, Markey has proposed a weaker pledge that would allow “progressive” groups to spend on positive advertising in the race, but otherwise bar outside money. Kennedy said such an exception would be impossible to enforce and defeats the purpose of the pledge.
In interviews, even some voters who said they are leaning toward supporting Markey had little knowledge of his extensive record.
Megan Gianniny, 28, of Somerville said she was “not super familiar” with his accomplishments, other than knowing he is one of the lead legislators working on the Green New Deal, of which she is a strong supporter. Many in her circle of friends also support that congressional resolution, which lays out a plan to tackle climate change while restructuring the US economy.
Broadly speaking, her impression is that “Kennedy’s not as far to the left as Markey, and as somebody who’s very leftist herself, I would rather have the most left candidate," Gianniny said. She also doesn’t feel Kennedy’s motivations are the right ones, saying she believes the 39-year-old congressman is challenging Markey because he feels “he deserves the role, not because he’s actually ready for it.”
Michael Shonle, an undecided voter from Cambridge, also said he didn’t know much about what Markey has worked on outside of the Green New Deal. The 55-year-old software engineer said he would like to see Markey taking stronger stands on issues that matter to the working class, such as universal health care. Shonle also wants politicians to embrace the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement on Israel, known as BDS, but he didn’t know Markey’s stand on it. (Both Markey and Kennedy oppose it.)
“I wish he would be taking a much stronger progressive stance so he actually is making headlines,” said Shonle, who also said the Senate primary “doesn’t feel super relevant” given how closely aligned the two candidates are on policy issues.
From Wednesday through Saturday, live callers surveyed 500 likely voters in the Democratic presidential primary by cellphone and landline; 465 said they are likely to vote in the Senate Democratic primary in September. The margin of error for the full sample was plus-or-minus 4.4 percentage points and, for the likely Senate voters, plus-or-minus 4.6 percentage points.
Overall, 49 percent of all 500 voters said they thought Markey deserved to be reelected, compared to 21 percent who said he did not. Asked to rate Markey’s job performance, 54 percent said he had done either an “excellent” or “good” job.
Another 21 percent judged his performance as “fair," while just 6 percent said his job performance was “poor,” the Suffolk/Globe survey found.
One clear sign of strength for Kennedy’s campaign: likely Senate primary voters see Kennedy as a far stronger opponent against President Trump. Asked who would be more of an adversary against Trump, 41 percent of voters said Kennedy, while 22 percent said Markey. Both men have pitched themselves to voters as the best equipped to stand up to the president, who is unpopular in Massachusetts.
“He just brings a certain energy that Markey doesn’t have. He sees the Senate seat as a platform that’s larger than just Massachusetts, which I think is what we need right now in the Senate,” said Lisa Rechtschaffen of Boston.
Markey, she said, has done a fine job and supports policies that she supports. But the 65-year-old doctor, who has seen Kennedy speak in person, likes that Kennedy has built strong relationships with some Republicans in Congress. “It’s a time that we need something bigger and more hopeful, and that’s why I think Kennedy’s better,” she said.
With primary day six months away, there’s plenty of opportunity for the race to shift; 21 percent of likely Senate primary voters said they remained undecided. The level of indecision was particularly acute among the youngest cohort, voters age 18 to 35, a demographic Markey has made a strong pitch to with his heavy emphasis on his role in championing the Green New Deal and his partnership with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is 30.
Among these voters, 35 percent said they were undecided about which candidate to support. On the question of whether Markey deserves reelection, 46 percent of the youngest group said they didn’t know.
In interviews, some voters acknowledged their picks were tentative at best. Shaquille Anderson, 27, of Dorchester, told the pollster he was leaning toward Markey but in a follow-up interview with the Globe said he is “on the fence, honestly.”
“Markey has years of experience focusing on fighting for the right issues,” except for his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, said Anderson, who works in marketing. “I think a lot of the problems the US faces now stem from that decision.”
Kennedy, meanwhile, strikes him as more in tune with younger voters, who are increasingly driving the policy agenda, whereas he noticed the 73-year-old Markey felt he needed to name-drop Ocasio-Cortez frequently in the recent televised debate to show “I’m hip, I’m connected.”
“After a certain point, some of the old heads need to step down,” said Anderson, musing that if Markey and Kennedy are fighting for the same things, maybe the incumbent should let the younger politician take up the torch.