FACING OFF Cicilline and Doherty.
Another week, another God-awful poll for freshman Congressman David Cicilline. The latest: a WPRI-TV-commissioned survey that found voters favoring Republican challenger Brendan Doherty 49 to 34 percent in a head-to-head matchup.
Dig deep into the polling data, though, and you'll find that Cicilline still has a path — albeit a narrow one — to re-election.
Cicilline, of course, was mayor of Providence before he won his seat in Congress. And he declared the city in "excellent fiscal condition" during the campaign. So when news of a major deficit on the city's books emerged after the election, his approval ratings tanked.
By May 2011, a WPRI poll was showing Doherty with a 13-point edge over the incumbent. And some observers were already writing the Congressman's political obituary.
But in a GoLocalProv poll from September 2011, which got little play in the broader media, Cicilline actually vaulted ahead of Doherty, powered by a surge of support among Democratic and independent voters.
The most likely explanation: the Providence budget nightmare had largely faded from the headlines and a Washington standoff over the debt ceiling — remember that? — had inflamed Democrats' partisan passions and soured some independents on the Republican Party.
The new WPRI poll, conducted February 20-23, comes after another burst of bad news about the Providence budget. And while it undoubtedly means trouble for Cicilline, recent history suggests that the race is fluid and that the Congressman can bounce back.
A resurgence, of course, depends on the capital city's fiscal crisis receding again. And the news of recent weeks — a crisis renewed, a high-profile push to get Brown University and other tax-exempt non-profits to pour more into city coffers — suggests its staying power.
But Darrell West, a former political science professor at Brown University now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the bad news should peak this spring, as the city scrambles to balance its budget and the state decides whether to come to Providence's aid.
Of course,if it all ends in a bankruptcy, that could deal a mortal blow to Cicilline's re-election chances. But if there is some temporary resolution, a lull in Providence news this summer and fall would work to the incumbent's advantage — the presidential election shifting the focus, at least in part, to the kind of national issues that favor a Democrat in a solidly blue state.
A deeper dive into the polling data suggests the depth of the opportunity here. Consider this: between the September 2011 GoLocalProv survey and the February 2012 WPRI poll, Cicilline actually took a bigger hit among Democratic voters (his lead over Doherty, with this segment, shrinking 29 points and landing at 54 percent to 30 percent) than among independents (Doherty's lead, with this cohort, jumping 15 points and landing at 54 percent to 25 percent).
The two surveys, it must be noted, were conducted by different pollsters and had relatively large margins of error. Redistricting, moreover, shifted the composition of the electorate between polls. But the directional trend is clear.
And while angering one's base is never a good thing, it seems clear that Cicilline has room to grow among Democrats, particularly if the race coalesces around issues like Social Security and Medicare sure to raise partisan hackles.