Can Ocasio-Cortez return the favor for Ayanna Pressley?

Pressley's best endorsement may be from the district, not the Bronx

GOING INTO THE 7th Congressional District debate this week, Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley trailed the incumbent, Rep. Michael Capuano, by 13 points, according to the latest WBUR poll. The debate was less about issues than it was whether voters want experience or a new perspective in Congress. That’s in keeping with the polling: Only 19 percent of likely primary voters perceive much of a difference between the candidates on the issues, and likely voters are evenly split on whether they value experience or fresh ideas in Washington.

So how will voters decide? Endorsements could make a difference, and on that score, Capuano would seem to be well ahead. At the debate he trumpeted endorsements from fellow congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as well as the mayors of all the cities in the district.

Pressley has a high-profile endorsement of her own. She backed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District, who went on to upset Joe Crowley, the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House. Now Ocasio-Cortez has returned the favor and endorsed Pressley.

But the polling suggests that Ocasio-Cortez may not help Pressley grow her support much beyond its current levels. For one thing, Pressley is better known and better liked than her endorser. Three-quarters of primary voters in the district have heard of Pressley, including 50 percent with a favorable view and 8 percent unfavorable. Only 57 percent of voters have heard of Ocasio-Cortez, 36 percent of whom view her favorably, 6 percent unfavorably.

Among those with a favorable view of the Bronx Democrat, Pressley leads Capuano 46 percent to 35 percent. But among those who have never heard of her or who have no opinion, Capuano leads 55 percent to 29 percent. So a visit from Ocasio-Cortez may help Pressley fire up her supporters to get out and vote, but it may not help her cut into Capuano’s lead.

Even among young voters, the cohort that propelled Ocasio-Cortez to victory, her favorables are roughly in line with Pressley and Capuano. Nor would it appear that Ocasio-Cortez would help Pressley with non-white voters, a demographic where she already holds an 18-point lead over Capuano. Half of non-whites have not heard of Ocasio-Cortez, while just 35 percent hold a favorable view. By comparison, 59 percent of non-whites hold a favorable view of Pressley herself.

The pattern holds in Pressley’s geographic base, Boston. Pressley leads by only 2 percentage points in Boston, 41 percent to 39 percent. If anywhere in the district, this is where a strategic endorsement could pack the biggest punch. But nearly half of Boston voters (46 percent) have never heard of Ocasio-Cortez while 36 percent say they have a favorable opinion. Pressley’s own favorables in Boston are at 61 percent, 25 points higher than her endorser.

It’s not clear whether an Ocasio-Cortez endorsement has helped much in other elections. Only one of the five candidates she endorsed in primaries this week won, although the single victory came in a deep blue Democratic stronghold, like the Seventh. (Ocasio-Cortez rallied for but did not endorse a sixth candidate, who also won in a deep-blue district.)

Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
Meet the Author

Richard Parr

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
It may be that another Pressley endorsement will prove more consequential down the stretch. Last week Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey endorsed Pressley. The last time a WBUR poll measured Healey’s favorables, in January 2018, 48 percent of registered Democrats and unenrolled voters in Boston and its inner suburbs had a favorable view of Healey, compared to only 12 percent with an unfavorable view.

Healey’s numbers are likely as good or better with primary voters in the 7th, which includes her home of Charlestown. That’s a neighborhood in the northern part of the district where Pressley will need to trim Capuano’s margin if she hopes to close the gap. With double digits to close and less than a month to go before the primary, Pressley will be happy to have help from both Healey inside the district and from Ocasio-Cortez outside.