Poll surprise of the day: Barney Frank in trouble?

The Sean Bielat campaign has declared themselves within reach of unseating Barney Frank in Massachusetts’ 4th CD, one of the presumed safest districts for Democrats in the nation.  The poll, conducted for the campaign by OnMessage, shows Frank falling below the 50% mark despite the D+14 composition of his constituency.  Bielat comes within nine points, even though the poll shows that he still badly trails in name recognition.

The memo from the pollster explains that Bielat could shock the world on November 2nd:

The ballot is very encouraging and shows Bielat at 38%, Frank at 48% and 13% undecided.

This is very encouraging because Barney Frank is an incumbent congressman who has served in Congress since 1981, has a favorable opinion slightly above 50% in a strongly Democratic district, but is now below 50% on the ballot. Frank has fallen 5 points on the ballot since July and shows that the national wave of frustration amongst the voters is even reaching the Democrat stronghold of Massachusetts 4th Congressional District.

We find more erosion of Frank’s support when we look at independent voters. In July, Frank led this critical demographic 44% to Bielat’s 37%, now, in September Frank has plunged 10 points with independents and trails with just 34% to Bielat’s 51%.

Sean Bielat has a promising chance of creating a major upset in this race. With proper funding and the ability to compete with Frank for the last four weeks of the election, Massachusetts 4 could provide the upset story of the 2010 midterm elections.

Any time an incumbent falls below 50%, it’s a sign of trouble.  In this case, Frank can’t even blame Barack Obama, who gets mildly positive approval ratings in the district, 52/42, as does Frank himself, 53/40.  In a generic ballot question, the Democrat leads here by eleven points, 44/33. Bielat gets a 24/9 approval rating, with 67% either having no opinion of him or not knowing his name at all.

Yet Frank only gets 45.2% of the likely voters polled in this survey to commit to voting for him, well below the 50% needed to secure the seat.  Beilat gets 36.5% of the vote, well above his name recognition value.  With leaners, it becomes 48.2/38.4 Frank, closer to 50% but still short — and with only 0.4% of the voters having never heard of Frank, Bielat has a lot more upside over the next six weeks.

Why has Frank fallen short?  The issue priority list gives a big hint.  Jobs and the economy top the list with 51.3% of the respondents, but immediately after that comes “Repeal the health-care bill,” with 8.6%.  Implementing ObamaCare is only a top priority with 7% of the voters in Frank’s district and finishes fifth on the list, behind getting a comprehensive energy bill and controlling federal spending.

Of course, one has to be careful with polling, especially those surveys conducted for campaigns.  In reviewing the questions used by the pollster, though, this looks very straightforward.  There are no “gotcha” questions on policy, for instance, just an open-ended question on which issues are the most important to respondents preceding the favorability questions, right/wrong direction, and the actual head-to-head question.  Other pollsters may get different results, but this survey appears to be an honest and professional poll.

It seems that MA-04 voters increasingly distrust Frank to represent those priorities in Washington.  If Bielat can get more recognition in this race, he may actually shock the world on November 2nd.

Update: Nine points is indeed a fairly significant lead, as I’ve written about the Bachmann/Clark race in MN-06, and as I will write about Toomey/Sestak with a seven-point lead later today.  But there are significant differences between these races.  Clark and Sestak are well-known within these constituencies, so neither has much upside to changing minds and grabbing votes.  Plus, nationally, the momentum is not behind the Democrats.  This is a two-way race between a nationally-known incumbent and a complete unknown, and the incumbent can’t get above 45% and has his opponent within nine points.  That’s a much different kettle of fish.

Update II: As it happens, we have some indirect corroboration of the fact that Bielat is making it a race.  If he wasn’t, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have to spend time trying to help Barney Frank keep his job.