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Markey leads Kennedy by notable margin in trio of new Senate polls

Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy III at a TV debate.
Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy III at a TV debate.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

A trio of new polls released Wednesday show Senator Edward J. Markey leading Joseph P. Kennedy III, as money continued to pour into the blockbuster Democratic Senate primary race, which has generated $29 million in spending among both campaigns and the collection of super PACs that support them.

A Suffolk University poll released Wednesday found Markey with a 10 point lead, outside the poll’s margin of error, beating Kennedy 51 percent to 41 percent, when voters who are leaning toward one candidate or the other are taken into account.

Two other polls released Wednesday also put Markey ahead of his opponent. Markey led Kennedy 52 percent to 40 percent including leaners in a survey of 800 likely Democratic primary voters by the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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In the other poll, a survey of 732 likely voters conducted by progressive thinktank Data for Progress, Markey was up 50 percent to 43 percent, when leaners were included.

The latest surveys appear to show that Markey’s campaign has created substantial momentum for the incumbent since the spring, when the coronavirus pandemic upended traditional campaigning and Markey’s social media-savvy young fans helped cement his image as a champion of the progressive movement.

A Suffolk poll released March 1 showed Kennedy, a four-term congressman, ahead of Markey 42 percent to 36 percent, a difference that was within the survey’s margin of error, and a Suffolk poll conducted shortly before Kennedy officially jumped in the race found the younger man with a double-digit lead in a head-to-head matchup with Markey.

The new polls found Markey with an advantage among young voters as well as with wealthy, well-educated liberals, who have solidified behind him. Kennedy performs better with voters who don’t have college degrees and with voters of color, though his margins with those groups do not appear large enough to overcome Markey’s advantages elsewhere.

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Kennedy cast doubt on polls in the race Wednesday, given the uncertainty around turnout in the wake of expansive changes to the ways people can vote in the Sept. 1 primary.

“There’s a lot of pieces of this race that we’re going to find out Tuesday night,” Kennedy told reporters outside the Hyde Park home of Angela Menino, the widow of the longtime Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who endorsed Kennedy Wednesday.

“From being around the state as much as I have been over the course of the past several weeks, the enthusiasm out there for my candidacy and for my campaign is really strong,” he said.

Kennedy campaign spokeswoman Emily Kaufman reinforced that view, saying the campaign’s internal modeling “shows a very tight race . . . that is trending in Joe’s direction in the final stretch.”

She said the campaign is “laser-focused” on its ground game and turning out as many Kennedy supporters as possible and is encouraged by indicators of high turnout in the state’s so-called Gateway Cities, where they believe most voters support Kennedy.

The Suffolk poll, which surveyed 500 likely Democratic primary voters from Sunday through Tuesday via live calls to landlines and cellphones, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

The UMass Lowell poll, which was conducted by an online survey from Aug. 13 through Aug. 21, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. The Data for Progress poll, which surveyed respondents Monday and Tuesday using “text-to-web and panel responses,” had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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Still, analysts caution that no one knows how the unprecedented changes to primary voting this year, including dramatically expanded vote-by-mail and early voting options, will affect the electorate.

“Caution is the overriding theme here,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the Suffolk poll. “We’re in an unprecedented election, where half a million people have already voted and no one really knows who and how many will show up on Tuesday.”

While far from a record, the significant spending reflects how heated, and close, the race has gotten over the course of the year.

The Kennedy campaign had spent about $14 million as of Aug. 12, when both campaigns were required to file pre-primary reports with the Federal Election Commission. That’s higher than the $10.9 million the Markey campaign reported spending as of that date, but Markey had more cash left to spend heading into the final weeks of the race, reporting about $3.5 million on hand, while Kennedy had just under $1.4 million.

Both candidates also have enjoyed millions in support from super PACs, which funded TV ads and offered other assistance. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money but cannot coordinate with campaigns.

Two pro-Markey super PACs, United for Massachusetts and Environment America Action Fund, have spent a combined $2.8 million supporting the senator, according to the most recent federal filings. That brings total campaign spending on Markey’s behalf to $13.7 million.

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The New Leadership PAC, a pro-Kennedy PAC that jumped into the race earlier this month, has spent nearly $3.5 million on his behalf since then, federal filings show, bringing total spending on Kennedy’s behalf to about $15.3 million.

Some Democrats, typically those supporting Markey’s reelection, see the spending on the intra-party fight for a seat almost certain to remain in Democrats’ control as wasteful, particularly in a year where the party is trying to defeat President Trump, defend their majority in the House, and flip the Senate blue. Kennedy drew a lot of heat, including from members of the Democratic establishment, for his decision to challenge Markey on the grounds that it would suck resources and money away from more important races.

But analysts say the evidence doesn’t back up that worry, with donations pouring into the war chests of Democrats in competitive House and Senate races, and Democrats out-raising their Republican counterparts.

“Democrats are raising so much money generally that primaries aren’t necessarily taking away from competitive general elections,” said David Wasserman, a nonpartisan analyst at The Cook Political Report. That might be different, he said, if every state had primaries as high profile as the ones going on in Massachusetts right now, but they don’t.

“This will all be over in a week, and Democratic donors will uniformly be focused on defeating Republicans,” he said.

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White-hot fury among activists over Trump is fueling record-setting levels of fund-raising for Democrats. Democratic challengers in Senate races in Arizona, North Carolina, Montana, and Iowa all out-raised Republican incumbents in the quarter that ended in July, according to CNN.


Despite the cash pouring into the race, the Kennedy-Markey contest falls short of the most expensive race in the state’s history. That distinction goes to the 2012 general election contest between Elizabeth Warren and Republican Scott Brown. 

The candidates in that race collectively spent at least $78 million over the course of the race, which Warren ultimately won.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.