The freshman Congressman's approval ratings dropped to Nixonian levels, rebounded a bit when Providence's fiscal woes drifted out of the headlines, and — in recent weeks — plummeted once more when the capital city's financial trouble resurfaced.
Still, however miserable Cicilline's numbers, most of the Democratic insiders and independent observers I spoke with still find it hard to imagine Gemma winning. Cicilline, they say, is a skilled politician who should retain support among liberals and labor; Gemma's ground game paled next to Cicilline's last time; and the businessman, who once donated to Republican Governor Donald Carcieri and only registered as a Democrat in May 2010 has a bona fides problem.
"When you have to keep explaining to people, 'No, no, I'm really a Democrat,'" says Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association — Rhode Island teachers union, "I think you've got some trouble."
He may be right. But new research on the role of emotion in politics suggests Gemma, if he is able to harness voter anger, will have a particularly potent force at his disposal.
Nicholas Valentino, professor of political science and communications studies at the University of Michigan, says there is evidence that other negative emotions like fear, sadness, or anxiety can actually demobilize voters — push them into retreat.
But anger, Valentino's research suggests, is a uniquely powerful motivator — even more powerful than positive emotions. A national survey of voters he conducted during the 2008 election, permeated by Barack Obama's appeal to hope, found respondents motivated by anger far more likely to participate in the political process than those stirred by enthusiasm. Indeed, undergirding Obama's optimistic message, Valentino argues, was significant anger at the state of the economy.
Of course, appeals to anger can backfire if the public thinks they are unfair. And Gemma, who seems prone to hyperbole, could alienate voters if he goes too far — particularly in a primary, where tolerance for attacks on a sitting Democratic Congressman may have its limits.
Indeed, Democratic sources say the Cicilline campaign is poised to take advantage of any excesses: declaring Gemma an angry, "unhinged" figure if it senses an opening; framing his campaign as a misguided crusade against the incumbent.
THE DOWNSIDE OF IDEAS
Cicilline, Democratic insiders say, is also likely to suggest Gemma is out-of-touch with core Democratic values — harping on Gemma's contribution to Carcieri and his pro-life politics, perhaps looking for material in his business background.
The Gemma camp, for its part, is expecting the worst.
"I expect a dirty, dirty, dirty campaign," says Ray Rickman, a former state representative who worked on Gemma's last campaign and remains close to the candidate. Cicilline's message, Rickman says, will have to be: "I am not the only bum in this race."
With the incumbent coming at him hard, Gemma — who did not return calls for comment — will have to demonstrate that he's a credible alternative. And this is where some of his quirkier ideas for government reform and economic revival could trip him up.
Democratic insiders are already suggesting Gemma's wonkery lacks substance — "it's a very student government-like, 'Hey, here's an idea,' " says Walsh, the union official. And Cicilline's supporters will undoubtedly be pushing that line as the campaign heats up.