As economic anxiety grows among Massachusetts voters, Attorney General Maura Healey would lead by a 2-to-1 margin over either potential Republican nominee for governor in a November matchup, a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found, her advantages fueled by appeal among independent voters, the state’s most crucial bloc.
The survey revealed residents are largely optimistic about their future and the direction of Massachusetts, albeit less so than a year ago. As COVID-19 worries fade, voters say they want the next governor to focus on the economy, inflation, and housing.
Importantly, a solid majority of voters are more interested in the state’s chief executive keeping Massachusetts on track than pushing sweeping changes.
They’re also still largely fond of Governor Charlie Baker, the Republican who said he is not seeking a third term and, by one measure, is again the country’s most popular governor. According to the Suffolk/Globe poll, Baker running as an independent would lead a hypothetical — and very unlikely — three-way race for governor that includes Healey by 9 points.
In the absence of Baker on the ballot, however, it’s Healey, with a well-known résumé built over two terms as the state’s top law enforcement official, who voters appear to favor.
In general election matchups against former state lawmaker Geoff Diehl or businessman Chris Doughty, the Republican Party’s two major candidates, Healey holds commanding leads: 54 to 27 percent against Diehl and 55 to 25 percent against Doughty.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a progressive Jamaica Plain Democrat also running for her party’s nomination, would also enjoy heady advantages against either Republican; she would top Diehl, 45 to 29 percent, and Doughty, 43 to 27 percent.
But more voters are undecided in either of the Chang-Díaz matchups than in ones involving Healey, whose leads are propelled by voters not enrolled in either party. Among independents, she holds roughly 20-percentage-point advantages over Diehl and Doughty, while Chang-Díaz either breaks even or holds only a slight edge among those voters against her potential Republican opponents.
The poll, conducted over five days last week, did not survey on primary matchups, though other public polls show Healey leading Chang-Díaz by as many as 45 percentage points in their Democratic race.
The Suffolk/Globe also poll found that Healey’s basic message — to “continue with what’s working and fix what’s not,” as she said in her campaign launch — is resonant with a strong majority of registered voters. Nearly 63 percent say they’re looking for someone who promises that, while 30 percent say they are looking for a gubernatorial candidate who pledges to deliver bold change, a distillation of Chang-Díaz’s pitch.
“The poll tells us that [Healey’s] got tremendous strength, and not only from her core supporters,” David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
When those backing her were asked what they considered her biggest achievement, more than three-quarters had an answer; those included that she is “for the people,” “competent,” or someone who “protects [the] consumer,” according to the poll.
“It was an array of different issues on which she’s touched people’s minds and hearts,” Paleologos said. “That kind of depth and diversity of policy and personality is the kind of winning ingredient that we’ve seen in gubernatorial winners in Massachusetts.”
Still, some voters who said they are leaning toward Healey also indicated they’re still weighing their options — and want to hear more from her.
“My whole thing is, what is she going to do for people who are in the lower-income community?” said Kimberly Wilson, a 52-year-old independent voter from Dorchester who said she’s leaning toward Healey but hasn’t made a decision yet. ”What is she going to do? What is she going to bring to the table?”
Daniel Phifer, a 34-year-old Roxbury resident and Democrat, told pollsters he would back Healey over a Republican opponent. But, in an interview with the Globe, Phifer said he still hasn’t definitely landed on a candidate and considers himself a “late bloomer,” or someone who will begin truly tuning in a few weeks before the election.
His choice for governor “cares about the health of the state and upgrading what works,” Phifer said. “I don’t have a preference for something new or bold. But I do want to see their ideas.”
Baker announced in December he isn’t running for reelection. But should Baker pull a Tom Brady and mount an improbable independent run — he’s given no indication that he will — the race could look dramatically different.
Asked to weigh a hypothetical general election matchup between Healey as the Democratic nominee, Diehl as the Republicans’ and Baker as an independent, 37 percent of likely voters said they would pick Baker, with 28 percent opting for Healey, and 17 percent for Diehl.
Some of those who say they appreciate the governor’s more moderate approach, however, now find themselves gravitating toward the Democratic front-runner, particularly with a Republican field that includes a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate in Diehl and a first-time candidate in Doughty.
“I’ve been a Republican my whole life. But I can’t vote for a Republican that follows Trump. I will not,” said MJ Smith, 70-year-old retired software engineer who lives in Amesbury. “If Baker was running again, I would obviously vote for him. But I would vote for Maura Healey, and I would be fine with it.”
Even with COVID-19 cases again rising across the state, the virus appears to have ceded attention in voters’ minds to economic worries fueled by rising inflation. Nearly 57 percent of residents surveyed said they believe the state’s “COVID situation” is getting better, while only 16 percent think it’s getting worse. They also continue to give Baker high marks for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 75 percent of residents approving.
When registered voters were asked to identify the most important issue for the next governor to address, the state’s economic outlook took center stage.
More than 14 percent of voters said the “economy,” and when combined with answers on inflation, cost of living, or jobs and wages, the constellation of financial concerns accounted for 27 percent of responses, a stark plurality given the laundry list of more than two dozen issues that voters identified. (About 5 percent pointed to COVID-19 as most important.)
Healey has put an early emphasis on economic concerns, launching her campaign with a promise to “get our economy back on track” and to stoke job training statewide. She and Chang-Díaz both threaded their environmental platforms with building Massachusetts into a hub of green energy jobs.
And Diehl and Doughty have leaned into voters’ economic worries. Diehl, of Whitman, has pitched himself as a champion of small businesses. Doughty, of Wrentham, has vowed to lower the cost of living and pursue a “revamp of our corporate laws.”
In a Suffolk/Globe poll just over a year ago, about one-third of residents said they believed the economy was in a recession or depression. Now, more than half — 51 percent — had that gloomy economic outlook.
Inflation also looms large, with more than half of respondents saying price increases have caused them or their household some or a lot of financial hardship.
Perhaps the sense of worry is also coloring how residents in Massachusetts see their neighbors. In the teeth of the pandemic’s first wave in the spring of 2020, nearly three-quarters of residents said people in Massachusetts are mostly generous and kind to others, while 18 percent said they are mostly selfish and looking out for their own interests.
Now, the poll indicates many fewer people have a rosy view of those who call Massachusetts home.
Fifty-five percent said they are mostly generous, and 28 percent said they are mostly selfish.
The poll surveyed 800 residents, including 765 registered voters, of whom 651 who were likely to vote in November. The April 24-28 survey carried a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points among all respondents and registered voters, and plus-or-minus 3.8 percentage points among likely voters.
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.