Democratic Congressman Edward Markey holds a modest lead over Republican challenger Gabriel Gomez with just over two weeks to go before the special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, according to a Suffolk University statewide poll of tightly screened likely voters. Markey polled 48 percent, Gomez 41 percent, Twelve Visions Party Richard Heos had less than 1 percent, 10 percent were undecided, and 1 percent refused a response.

“Ed Markey continues to lead but the margin has dwindled,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. “Markey’s core ballot test number has fallen below 50 percent and recent Obama administration scandals, especially the Associated Press phone records scrutiny, have touched a nerve with likely voters who are holding back or no longer supporting Markey and President Obama with the same intensity.”

In the initial ballot test, Markey held a 44-36 percent lead, and when leaners were added, the margin shrunk a point to a 7 percent lead.

While President Obama remains popular, he struggles to maintain the voters’ trust in the wake of the three controversies which have become national news since the May Suffolk poll. Obama’s approval ratings have dropped from 67 percent favorable-29 percent unfavorable to 60 percent favorable-35 percent unfavorable, and his job performance numbers are down from 63 percent approve-32 percent disapprove to 57 percent approve-37 percent disapprove.

On the issue of the IRS targeting of conservative groups applying for tax exempt status, 88 percent of likely voters were aware of the story and 50 percent said that Obama was being truthful when he said he learned about the issue through the news media. Thirty-nine percent said he was not being truthful.

Eighty-eight percent were aware of the Benghazi story and 43 percent said that Obama deliberately misled the public about the attack on the embassy, while 50 percent said he did not.

Although 80 percent were aware of the Associated Press phone records story, a strong majority – 61 percent – said that there should be stricter limits on the federal government’s power to investigate journalists. Twenty-five percent disagreed.

“Clearly voters do not want the investigative powers of the federal government to run rampant,” said Paleologos. “Through no fault of Markey, the remaining undecideds in the Senate race are equally polarized on this issue and the fallout may be hurting the Congressman. The normally solid terrain that a statewide Democrat traditionally enjoys in Massachusetts has become a little muddy and if these privacy issues continue, that footing could cause Markey to sink further.”

Since the poll was fielded, an additional story broke in the Washington Post about the National Security Agency and the FBI tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets. Since that report, Democratic Representatives Mike Capuano and Niki Tsongas were openly critical of administration officials due to these additional revelations while Markey has been more reserved.

State Welfare Payments

In Massachusetts, the state auditor’s report that 1,164 people continued to receive welfare benefits for periods of six months to up to 27 months after they died, totaling nearly $2.4 million in payments, has people concerned. Eighty-nine percent said they were very or somewhat concerned about the report, while just 10 percent were not very concerned or not at all concerned. Despite the controversy, Governor Deval Patrick is polling at or above his favorability and job performance numbers from the Suffolk poll taken a month ago.

Whitey Bulger Trial

With jury selection beginning, more than two-thirds (68 percent) said that they were very or somewhat interested in the upcoming James “Whitey” Bulger trial. Sixty percent of likely voters said that they thought Bulger could get a fair trial in Massachusetts.

History

In the special Senate general election of January 2010, the Suffolk poll predicted a four point win for Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley. Brown won by 4.7 percent. In the 2010 general election for governor, the Suffolk poll predicted a seven point win for incumbent Democratic Governor Deval Patrick over Republican Charlie Baker. Patrick won by 6.3. In November 2012, the Suffolk poll predicted a seven point win for Democrat Elizabeth Warren over incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown in the race for U.S. Senate. Warren won by 7.4 percent.

Methodology

Using a split sample of landline and cell phone numbers, the Suffolk poll used a tight screen to filter out voters who weren't certain to vote or who couldn't name when the special general election would be held. The field of 500 likely voters was conducted Thursday, June 6 through Sunday, June 9. The margin of error is +/- 4.4 percent at a 95 percent level of confidence for each area. Results are posted on the Suffolk University Political Research Center website. For more information, contact David Paleologos at 781-290-9310, dpaleologos@suffolk.edu.