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Koh has small lead in Third District, but many voters still undecided, poll says

Candidates (Left to right) Alexandra Chandler, Rufus Gifford, Daniel Koh, Barbara L’Italien,Juana Matias, and Lori Trahan participate in an April debate between the Democratic candidates for the third district congressional seat in Lowell.
Candidates (Left to right) Alexandra Chandler, Rufus Gifford, Daniel Koh, Barbara L’Italien,Juana Matias, and Lori Trahan participate in an April debate between the Democratic candidates for the third district congressional seat in Lowell.(Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe)

Dan Koh, the former top Boston City Hall aide, has built a small lead in the Third Congressional District’s crowded Democratic field, where most voters said they still don’t know whom they prefer just weeks before the primary, according to a new Boston Globe/UMass Lowell poll.

Koh, who moved back to his hometown of Andover after serving as Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s chief of staff, drew 19 percent of support from some 550 likely Democratic primary voters. It gives him a 6-point cushion over Rufus Gifford, a former US ambassador to Denmark, and state Senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover, both of whom polled at 13 percent.

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The rest of the field is tightly bunched. Lori Trahan, a consulting firm executive from Westford, received 8 percent, followed by state Representative Juana B. Matias, of Lawrence, at 6 percent, and Alexandra Chandler, a former US military intelligence analyst from Haverhill, at 4 percent.

Four other candidates — hotel executive Abhijit “Beej” Das; former labor activist Jeffrey Ballinger; Stow attorney Leonard Golder; and bank vice president Bopha Malone — all got 2 percent or less.

The margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 5.2 percentage points, underscoring how close the race is for the first open seat in the Massachusetts congressional delegation in five years. The poll was conducted from Aug. 14 to 21.

With the Sept. 4 election quickly approaching, the largest bloc of likely voters — 29 percent — say they’re still undecided about the party’s nominee to succeed retiring US Representative Niki Tsongas.

It’s not from a lack of trying by the candidates. Nearly 50 percent of the voters surveyed said they’ve received a phone call from at least one of the campaigns, and 30 percent said they’ve talked face to face with someone from a campaign. That may not be surprising in what’s become the largest Massachusetts congressional primary in two decades, filled with many hopefuls who are running for elected office for the first time.

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But for nine of the 10 candidates, a majority of respondents said they either had no opinion or had never heard of them. The lone exception is Koh. Just 16 percent said they had never heard of him, the lowest in the field, and 50 percent said they viewed him favorably, the highest.

“There is an information overload problem going on here,” 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.

“There are 10 candidates, and that is too many for voters,” he said. “Voters have limited attention to give to politics, and even in a year where there’s a lot of excitement, this is an election where you had a whole bunch of political newcomers, a whole bunch of new faces and names to learn, and the field did not winnow.”

The large number of undecided voters leaves room for support to shift in the waning days of the primary, when campaigns are expected to hammer voters with television ads, phone calls, and mailings to their homes.

And in a race that is so large, even a small slice of the electorate could carry a candidate to victory. In the last 10-candidate congressional field, in 1998, then-Somerville Mayor Michael E. Capuano won with 23 percent of the vote.

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With Koh polling just below that mark, his success could be tied to his ability to make contact with voters, Dyck said. More voters in the survey said they got calls or face-time with his campaign than any other candidate, followed closely by Gifford and L’Italien.

Koh, as of early July, also had raised more than double the amount of money than any other candidate and started last month with $1.7 million left in his campaign account.

Vera Knecht, a 66-year-old Democrat and recent retiree from Hudson, said she’s been contacted by both Koh’s and Gifford’s campaigns, and said she likes both candidates. But, as she responded in the poll, she plans to vote for Koh, in part because “no matter where I go, I see the Koh signs.”

“Koh is very popular and we need somebody that people seem to be comfortable with,” Knecht said.

Nancy Clover, a 60-year-old nurse from Methuen, was among those who told pollsters she’s undecided. She said she’s since decided to vote for L’Italien, but admitted there are as many as five candidates she likes.

“I’m politically savvy, and I have been struggling with this,” the self-described “really left” Democrat said. “It’s not only the number of choices, but they all have the values that I care about.

“And the other five,” she said with a laugh, “I couldn’t take any more into my head.”

In a Boston Globe/UMass Lowell poll in April, nearly 60 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said then they hadn’t picked a candidate.

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The winner will face Rick Green, a Pepperell businessman and the lone Republican running, in the Nov. 6 election.

President Trump has emerged as a leading issue for voters. Seventy-three percent of respondents said it’s very important that a candidate “stand up” to the president, and more than 50 percent said it was the most important characteristic in a candidate.

Trump, perhaps not surprisingly, also remains deeply unpopular among likely Democratic primary voters in the survey, with 80 percent holding an unfavorable view of the Republican. That actually could be considered an improvement over the April poll, where Trump’s disapproval rating was 88 percent.

Governor Charlie Baker, however, got some good news in his reelection bid. The Republican is viewed favorably by 72 percent of the likely Democratic primary voters, compared to 10 percent who view him unfavorably.

That’s a better ratio than even the most popular Democrats. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who also is seeking reelection this fall, is viewed favorably by 70 percent of those polled, compared to 16 percent who have an unfavorable view.

Tsongas, who was first elected in 2007, is viewed favorably by 72 percent, and unfavorably by 12 percent of respondents.

A strong majority of the likely Democratic primary voters — 71 percent — say they also want to see reforms at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a notable number given the heavy immigrant populations in Third District cities such as Lawrence and Lowell.

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But many likely voters don’t go as far as liberal Democrats who say it should be abolished. Just 9 percent said they feel the agency should be wiped out completely. That’s lower than the 13 percent who say it’s “fine the way it is.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout