BOSTON (CBS) – This election season began with all eyes on New Hampshire, and with control of the US Senate at stake, it appears to be ending that way.
And in the crucial Senate race between incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte and her challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, a new WBZ-TV, WBZ NewsRadio, UMass Amherst poll of 772 likely voters finds Ayotte holding a wafer-thin lead over Hassan, 46-to-43 percent, with eight-percent undecided. (With leaners added, it’s Ayotte 48, Hassan 44. Both outcomes are within the poll’s 4.5% margin of error.)
Ayotte’s changing position on support for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has been a significant talking point during the race, with Hassan pouncing on Ayotte’s remark in a debate that Trump was a “role model” for children, a comment she later renounced. (In the wake of the infamous Trump audiotape, Ayotte said she could no longer support him.)
But the WBZ-UMass Amherst poll suggests damage to Ayotte has been minimal.
Just 19% of voters say her contortions regarding Trump make them somewhat or much less likely to vote for her; 15% say it makes them somewhat or much more likely to support her. Sixty-four percent say it makes no difference.
“She seems to be well-known by New Hampshire voters, they trust her,” says WBZ-UMass Amherst pollster Ray LaRaja. “Even voters who are unfavorable toward Trump are saying ‘we’re still considering voting for Ayotte.’ She’s inoculated herself fairly well from Trump, and unlike the other Republican candidates, she’s winning with independent voters.”
Meanwhile, voters turned off by negative campaigning may prove to be a problem for Hassan, with 46% saying she has run the more negative race, while 31% say the same of Ayotte.
However, both candidates head into the final two weeks of campaigning with nearly identical job approval and personal favorability ratings.
New Hampshire voters are a savvy bunch traditionally conscious of their role in shaping the campaign through their first-in-the-nation primary. And it appears many of them will go to the polls well aware of their importance in determining the balance of power in Congress.
Asked to identify the issues of most importance to them, nine-percent of our poll respondents cited control of the Senate and its impact on shaping the future of the Supreme Court, good for a close third place behind the economy/jobs and health care. Social issues, taxes and homeland security also weigh heavily on these voters.
In other prominent New Hampshire races, Democrat Colin Van Ostern and Republican Chris Sununu are locked in a tight battle to succeed Hassan as governor, with Van Ostern holding a 42-39% lead that narrows slightly to 44-43% when leaners are added. (Disclosure: my adult son Barney is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who is advising the Sununu campaign.)
In the First Congressional District race renewing on ongoing rivalry, incumbent Republican Frank Guinta trails Carol Shea-Porter by three points, 39-36%, a lead that expands to four with leaners added. And in the Second Congressional District, Democrat Annie Kuster has an eight-point edge (eleven with leaners added) over Lawrence.
Coming Wednesday: How New Hampshire voters reacted to the presidential debates, and the impact of this negative campaign on both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
And please join us at 8 pm on Election Night on our sister station, MyTV38, for complete coverage of the results in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and the nation from the WBZ-TV News team.