A former US ambassador to Denmark who recently moved into Massachusetts’ Third Congressional District to run in the Democratic primary has taken a small, early lead in the crowded race where more than half of likely voters are still undecided, according to a new Boston Globe/UMass Lowell poll.
Rufus Gifford, who was raised in Manchester-by-the-Sea and recently took up residence in Concord, drew 11 percent support from respondents who said they planned to vote in the Sept. 4 primary for the seat being vacated by Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat.
His closest competition in the 13-candidate primary comes from state Senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover, who got 7 percent of the some 490 Democratic and registered independent voters who said in the survey they are likely to cast ballots.
Consulting firm executive Lori Trahan, a Lowell native living in Westford, picked up 5 percent support; Dan Koh, an Andover native and former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and state Representative Juana Matias of Lawrence, each received 4 percent; former US military intelligence analyst Alexandra Chandler of Haverhill, 3 percent; bank vice president and Cambodian refugee Bopha Malone of Lowell, 2 percent; and all other candidates got 1 percent or less.
But, as expected in a race that has yet to capture much attention beyond political insiders, a strong majority — 58 percent of likely voters — said they are still undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percent and was conducted from April 11 to 17.
The survey is the first independent poll of the Merrimack Valley-based district, which extends from Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lowell to the western district communities of Fitchburg, Gardner, Marlborough, Hudson, and south to Concord.
The contest began last August when Tsongas, a 10-year incumbent, unexpectedly announced she would not seek another term. Since then, candidates have raised more than $5 million and spent well over $1 million laying the groundwork for a primary set for the day after Labor Day.
Gifford’s early lead in a crowded pack of candidates — a surprising but critical boost for a first-time candidate — could be attributed to his having spent $396,225 of the $900,340 he has raised so far in his campaign. His spending, according to public records, is only second to Koh, who has stunned the political world by raising $2.5 million in the last seven months. Koh has spent $524,519 in the race as of the end of March.
“I would have never guessed Gifford would be leading in the poll if you asked me two months ago,’’ said Joshua J. Dyck, an associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Lowell who, as codirector of the Center for Public Opinion, conducted the survey in partnership with the Globe.
He attributed Gifford’s success in the survey to his focus on raising his visibility, after moving into the district with virtually no name recognition.
“He has clearly campaigned the best so far, but the caveat is nearly 60 percent of the voters are undecided and there is a lot of work to be done,” Dyck said. “It is a question as to whether the campaigns marshal their resources in the right way.”
Dyck’s observation is backed up by one of the respondents, Brenna Mayer of Groton, a 49-year-old freelance editor for medical textbooks, who said she chose Gifford in the survey because she had received three mailings of large postcards from his campaign.
“The mailings made me think he may be the candidate, but I need to dig into it more,’’ said Mayer, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat.
The fluidity of the race was evident in the response by Judith Machado, a 72-year-old retiree, registered independent, and Trump supporter. She told the poll interviewer that she was for L’Italien, but acknowledges she is still making up her mind. She said issues of immigration, sanctuary cities, and “the wall” — subjects that drew her to Trump — are critical in her decision making.
“I don’t know Barbara, but I hear good things about her,’’ said Machado, who, with her husband, ran a landscape and paving company. “It’s really too early to be pinned down. I also like Lori Trahan.”
In another finding that can only be more discouraging news for Democrats looking to retake the governor’s office, the poll showed 80 percent of the likely Democratic primary voters voicing approval of Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s job performance. Eleven percent disapproved.
That rating is about equal to the one they gave the state’s most popular Democrat, US Senator Elizabeth Warren. Her job approval was 81 percent, but her disapproval was higher — at 15 percent.
In contrast to Baker, who has kept a significant distance from Donald Trump, the president is hugely unpopular among the Democratic primary voters in a district that, while dominated by the party for well over four decades, is seen to be one of the more conservative seats in the state. Trump’s job disapproval rating is 88 percent, with 81 percent of those respondents registering strong disapproval.
A slight majority — 55 percent — feel Congress should hold impeachment hearings, with nearly a third, 32 percent, disagreeing.
US House minority leader Nancy Pelosi also has problems with the district’s Democrats and independents. Only 27 percent said they would like to see Pelosi be the speaker if the Democrats retake control of the House in November. Another 55 percent said someone else should take her place, while 17 percent said they were unsure.
Pelosi’s support is weakest among male voters, with 19 percent saying she should be the speaker, while 33 percent of the women surveyed supported her taking back the position she held between 2007 and 2011. She is supported by 23 percent of independents.
The issues that concern the voters most are the economy, with 16 percent pointing to jobs, unemployment, poverty, inequality, and wages. Another 16 percent pointed to dissatisfaction with government, including Congress and Trump. Education and drugs/opioids were cited by 11 percent.
Only one Republican, Pepperell businessman Rick Green, has emerged as the party’s candidate to recapture the seat the GOP has not held since 1974, when Tsongas’s husband, Paul, ousted Paul Cronin.