AN ENIGMATIC TELEPHONE SURVEY raised eyebrows among the Massachusetts political establishment this week. The poll, first reported by POLITICO Massachusetts, pitted Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III against incumbent Senator Ed Markey in a hypothetical 2020 Democratic primary. The survey raised the specter of a race between the longest serving member of the state congressional delegation and the youngest.
According to the POLITICO article and other respondents the MassINC Polling Group has heard from since that report, the poll was done by live interviewers and lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. The survey tested the favorability of Markey’s declared challengers businessman Steve Pemberton and labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan – as well as Kennedy, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey. After the favorables portion, which was done at the beginning of the poll (as is standard), the remainder of the questionnaire honed in on Kennedy versus Markey, testing the head-to-head matchup several times between messages for and against both candidates.
None of the contents or mechanics are at all unusual for a political campaign poll. Even some of the inflammatory rhetoric used would be conventional for political message testing. What is unusual is that someone would pay for a lengthy telephone poll about a match-up that nobody, at least publicly, has even hinted is in the offing. Conducting a live-caller survey of this length carries a price tag likely running into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the sample size. While these dollar figures are readily absorbed by serious statewide campaigns, it’s a hefty fee to pay if an actual campaign is not under consideration.
Kennedy’s team declined to comment on whether they sponsored the poll. A spokesperson told POLITICO that “Congressman Kennedy is running for re-election in the House, as he has said many times.” Kennedy himself has said he’d only run for Senate if a seat opened up. Of course, elected officials are only occasionally candid about their aspirations for higher office, but any indication of a Kennedy Senate run has been mostly non-existent at this point.
Whoever he faces, Markey has his own challenges to overcome. The state’s current political environment offers less of an advantage to incumbents than was once true. The last few cycles have seen two longtime Democratic officeholders lose to primary challengers. Ayanna Pressley defeated Michael Capuano in 2018, and Seth Moulton beat John Tierney in 2014. Massachusetts’s unwritten rule against primary challenges seems to have all but faded out.
Markey himself has generated relatively little passion among the state’s voters since winning John Kerry’s seat in the 2013 special election and 2014 re-election. He is viewed favorably by just 39 percent of voters, according to a June Suffolk University poll, while 25 percent view him unfavorably. That leaves 36 percent of voters who have no opinion of him either way. That’s a high number for an officeholder who has been serving in Washington since the Ford administration. By comparison, the same poll found just 9 percent of voters without a positive or negative view of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Markey is refreshing his progressive credentials on environmental and other issues. He has helped lead the charge on the Green New Deal alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Neither challenger seems interested in trying to run to Markey’s left or really confronting him on the issues, making arguments instead about the need for new leaders and new ideas. Kennedy would also fit this mold. But who is interested enough in that possibility to sponsor a long and expensive poll remains a mystery.
Steve Koczela is the president and Libby Gormley is a research associate at the MassINC Polling Group. Hear more analysis of the anonymous poll and other updates in Massachusetts politics and policy in this week’s episode of The Horse Race.