U.S. Rep. Edward Markey is the clear frontrunner to win the special U.S. Senate election, but his support is so soft he's failing to break the 50 percent mark even against a field of little-known GOP challengers, a new UMass Lowell/Boston Herald poll reveals.
Markey leads his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, by a 50-21 percent margin among potential Democratic primary voters, according to the poll, the first since the field of candidates in the June 25 election has been set.
.But the Malden Democrat's relatively weak support among independent voters is giving Lynch and the Republican candidates a small opening to pull off a Scott-Brown type upset, according to the poll of 589 registered voters conducted March 2-5.
"Obviously Markey is the big favorite right now but all the support is so soft," said Joshua Dyck, co-director of UMass Lowell's Center for Public Opinion. "There's a lot of room for people's opinions to change and evolve."
Markey leads his closest GOP challenger, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, by 17 points in a general election matchup. The longtime Malden congressman also leads GOP newcomer Gabriel Gomez by nearly 20 points and Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow by 23 points, according to the poll, conducted by RKM Research and Communications.
But Markey's support still falls below 50 percent, and about a quarter of the electorate is unsure or doesn't like any of the choices, making the race especially unpredictable right now.
Much of the potential voter volatility comes from the fact that all of the candidates, including Markey and Lynch, remain relatively unknown.
Half of all voters statewide have never heard of Markey or have no opinion of him, while 31 percent have a favorable view and 20 percent an unfavorable opinion.
At least 80 percent of voters have on opinion or have never heard of the Republican candidates, while Lynch is unknown by about six in ten voters.
Winslow has the weakest name recognition - 92 percent of voters haven't heard of him or have no opinion, yet Markey still musters only 49 percent against him in an election matchup.
Independent voters - the key to Brown's surprise victory in 2010 - are also a potential weakness for Markey. He is winning only about 30 percent of independents in matchups against all the Republicans.
The poll also shows that nearly 80 percent of voters favor holding a special election rather than changing the law to allow Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint a senator to fill the opening created by former Sen. John F. Kerry's appointment as Secretary of State.
But when asked whether the special election, estimated to cost about $13 million, is a good use of taxpayer money, just 42 percent agree while 38 percent say it's a waste of public funds.