Could Cicilline be in for a surprise on Tuesday?

Primary wisdom
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 10, 2010

ON THE RUN Dems Gemma, Cicilline, Lynch, and Segal, and GOP hopeful Loughlin.

With the Democratic primary for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District seat in the home stretch, most observers say Providence Mayor David Cicilline is the man to beat. And there is much to recommend the view.

Cicilline is the best known of the candidates vying to replace retiring Congressman Patrick Kennedy. He has raised far more money than his opponents. And he held a comfortable lead over his Democratic rivals in a Brown University poll conducted in late July.

But could Rhode Island's armchair pundits be calling the race too soon? Could Cicilline be in for a surprise on Primary Day?

And should the Democrats be worried about probable Republican nominee John Loughlin II come November?


The argument for an upset in the Democratic primary usually begins with a critique of the Brown poll, which gave Cicilline 32 percent of the vote, to 15 percent for former state party chairman Bill Lynch, 11 percent for businessman Anthony Gemma, and just under 6 percent for State Representative David Segal of Providence.

The poll had a relatively small sample size of 174 voters who said they were "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to vote in the primary, leaving a larger-than-average margin of error of 7.4 percent.

But more importantly, Segal argues, it cast a net too wide. Plenty of poll respondents say they are going to vote. And these casual voters, only half tuned-in to the race and not terribly committed to showing up on election day, are particularly prone to pick the best-known name — in this case Cicilline — in a survey.

The true turnout will be significantly smaller than the poll would suggest, Segal contends, and built around dedicated supporters of the candidates. This view, of course, dovetails nicely with Segal's campaign strategy: run as the true progressive, luring self-identified liberals and union voters to the polls in large enough numbers to eke out a victory in a low-turnout race.

Lynch also argues that the Brown survey overstates Cicilline's lead. But he says his internal polling points to another problem for the mayor: support that hits a ceiling somewhere between 28 to 32 percent.

With just days to go until the election, he says, roughly three in 10 voters have yet to pick a candidate. And "those 30 percent are not likely to suddenly decide to vote for someone who is seen as an incumbent, career politician," he maintains, particularly in a year of deep voter discontent.

Lynch, naturally, argues that he is best positioned to surge past Cicilline by capitalizing on his base of support in the Blackstone Valley portion of the district: his native Pawtucket, Cumberland, East Providence, and Central Falls.

Gemma, whose family owns Gem Plumbing, entered the contest as the wildcard — the businessman with a thick wallet who might be able to catch fire amid disgust with status-quo politics.

And while the heavy spending some anticipated was slow to come, Gemma told the Phoenix last week that he had spent $400,000 of his own money to date — no small sum. He also promised a game-changing cash infusion in the closing days of the campaign and a sharp critique of his opponents.

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