On the rebound

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 2, 2011

The crisis, averted, fell off the front page. And another — the debt ceiling showdown in Washington — took its place. The news couldn't have been much better for Cicilline. At least, that's what the polling suggests.

Joshua Starr, the Washington-based pollster who conducted the GoLocalProv survey, cautions that relatively small sample sizes — 300 First Congressional District voters for the WPRI poll in May and 206 for his own in September — mean we can only identify "directional" shifts in opinion.

But if the numbers are a little crude — the margins of error for the polls are 5.7 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively — they tell a compelling story. A couple of them, actually.

The first is a bit mixed. Independent voters, a key swing group, didn't budge much in their personal distaste for Cicilline between May and September; his favorability ratings remained low.

But in head-to-head matchups with Republicans, the incumbent made significant gains. In May, 13 percent of independents favored him and 59 percent backed GOP frontrunner Brendan Doherty, the former superintendent of state police, in a head-to-head matchup. Four months later, Cicilline had 31 percent to Doherty's 45 percent.

In just four months, the Republican's advantage shrunk from 46 to 14 percent.

Doherty, who kept a low profile — and, indeed, remains a relative unknown for voters — did nothing to scare away independents during this period. Starr's thesis: House Republicans, who alienated centrists with their intransigence on the debt ceiling and broader budget fight, gave Cicilline a sizable bump.

The GOP's stubbornness may also help to explain the other major trend in the polling numbers: Democrats coming home. In May, just 9 percent of Democrats viewed Cicilline "very positively." By September, the figure had tripled. And his lead over Doherty, among Democrats, went from 35 to 53 points.

Democrats, their partisan passions stirred, seem likely to stick with Cicilline should he make it through the party's primary. The bigger question for the incumbent is whether the national GOP will tone down its message — giving independents, who don't much like Cicilline, an excuse to bolt.

Given the Tea Party's success in pushing the Repub-lican Party to the right thus far, that doesn't seem a terribly strong possibility.


If events in Providence and Washington have lifted the Congressman, he's also helped his own cause.

Cicilline positioned himself well, during the campaign, with calls for a "Made in America" block grant that would help companies retool old factories and retrain workers to "compete in the new economy."

"Made in China, made in Vietnam," he said, in his marquee campaign ad, "whatever happened to made in America?"

The message was well-tuned to recession-weary Rhode Island — particularly the conservative Blackstone Valley region, site of the state's past industrial glories.

But it has also fit snugly with a wide-ranging "Make it in America" agenda championed by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House.

Indeed, Cicilline found himself showing Hoyer the "Made in America" ad on his iPad not long ago to demonstrate he'd come up with the meme before he arrived in Washington.

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