Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has opened an imposing lead over her challengers with just weeks to go before the Democratic primary, garnering a larger share of likely voters than all of her rivals combined, according to a Baltimore Sun poll.
Sixty-eight percent of the respondents approved of the job Rawlings-Blake has done as mayor since she took office last year, and half of those polled said they plan to vote her back for a full four-year term.
"She looked at the city's problems and she handled them in a direct manner," said Lawrence Gray, a retired analyst with the Social Security Administration. "She didn't try to fool anyone with the sacrifices that would have to be made by the city."
The rest of the field managed only 32 percent combined.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and former city Planning Director Otis Rolley were in a statistical tie for second place, with 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. and Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, a former vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, each had 5 percent.
Rawlings-Blake also has enjoyed advantages in fundraising, cash on hand and endorsements from the Democratic establishment. In a city dominated by the party, the winner of the Sept. 13 primary is all but assured of victory in November.
The telephone survey of 742 likely Democratic primary voters was conducted Aug. 22-24 by OpinionWorks of Annapolis for The Baltimore Sun. The opinion poll has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
The numbers are daunting for Rawlings-Blake's challengers, pollster Steve Raabe said.
"It's a big margin for somebody to make up, and there isn't a clear second-place candidate," said Raabe, president of OpinionWorks. "If there is some movement away from the mayor in these closing days, it's not clear that that would gravitate toward one alternative candidate.
"That's probably the problem for the competitors — whatever vote there may be out there that is in opposition to the current mayor is going to get divided."
Rawlings-Blake, who took office in February 2010 after Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned as part of a plea deal to settle charges of theft and perjury, leads among nearly every racial group, age category and education level, according to the poll.
Rolley won the support of 24 percent of likely primary voters under age 35; Rawlings-Blake received 21 percent — a statistical dead heat.
Rawlings-Blake supporters are more ardent than those of other candidates, with 65 percent saying they were firm in their decision.
Rolley backers expressed the second-highest level of dedication, with 49 percent reporting firm support.
In another possible glimmer of hope for Rolley, 21 percent of his supporters said they had decided to back him "in the last day or two" — a significantly higher percentage than for any other candidate.
"If anyone in the race has a little bit of momentum, it's probably him," Raabe said.
Brandon Brooks, a 29-year-old urban planning student, said he is ardently supporting Rolley.
"He's new and I want a fresh face," the lifelong city resident said. "I think we continually vote in same kind of people and I just want somebody new."
Gray, the retired Social Security analyst, said he was skeptical when Rawlings-Blake was sworn in.
"Nobody even knew who she was," said Gray, 65, who lives in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Beechfield. "She was just there as a result of being in the right place at the right time. And with all the shenanigans that went on down there in City Hall, I thought she fell in with it. "
But he said Rawlings-Blake's approach to closing significant budget gaps two years in a row earned his trust.
Irene Cromartie, a retired insurance agent from Cherry Hill, said she has met Rawlings-Blake several times, most recently at a summer crab feast for seniors.
"I think she's an honest person," said Cromartie, 77. "She's done quite well, considering the mess she took over."
But others said the city is due for new leadership.
Rita Silverman, 68, of Northwest Baltimore said she is drawn to Rolley's "fresh ideas."
"He looks like he has fire in the belly, and that's refreshing," she said. "I like Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, but I think she's sticking too much with the status quo."
Rawlings-Blake strikes some voters as lacking passion.
Vicki Defries, 59, of Mount Washington said she has not been impressed by Rawlings-Blake's appearances on television.
"There was not an ounce of connection to the city," she said. "She looked angry. She looked disgusted."
Defries said she had been supporting Rolley but had been turned off by what she described as his campaign's increasingly negative tone in recent days. She says she is now undecided.
Linda Dennis, 59, a school system employee, said she planned to vote for Pugh, because the longtime West Baltimore leader appears to have more empathy than Rawlings-Blake.
"I've watched [Pugh] speak at a couple of functions, and she actually talks to the people," Dennis said.
Dennis said she is harassed by drug dealers in the Pimlico home in which she has lived for half a century. In 2008, she said, her two Volvos were firebombed while parked outside.
She said she has not seen the neighborhood grow more safe under Rawlings-Blake's tenure.
"I voted for her in the last election, but I wouldn't vote for her again," she said. "She hasn't done anything."
But others said Rawlings-Blake was doing as well as could be expected, given the city's fiscal restraints during the weak economic recovery.
Alice McMeekins, 80, said she appreciated Rawlings-Blake's stances on crime and education but feels the city's financial problems have hampered the mayor's efforts to improve the city.
"There's really no money to do anything with," she said.
Gray, who volunteers with his church's summer camp, said he has felt the pain of Rawlings-Blake's budget cuts firsthand.
The city-funded splash pool where volunteers take the campers has been open for fewer days and shorter hours this summer, part of Rawlings-Blake's efforts to trim spending.
Gray said Rawlings-Blake's challengers have yet to demonstrate that they could run the city as well as she has.
"The rest of them, they're just talking, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "It's always easy when you're on the outside looking in."
With the primary less than 21/2 weeks away, Rawlings-Blake's substantial fundraising advantage has enabled her to advertise heavily on television in recent days.
Pugh raised $345,000 in the same period, including $75,000 in the form of a two-week loan from Scott Donahoo, a former car dealer who flirted with a run for mayor earlier this year, that has come due. Rolley raised $267,000.
Even though the opinion poll showed Rawlings-Blake with a clear lead, Pugh or Rolley could still eke out a victory, Raabe said. According to the poll, slightly more than one-third of Rawlings-Blake's supporters said their backing could waiver, and 18 percent of likely primary voters remained undecided.
"There is a still a formula for a challenger to win this race," the pollster said. Rawlings-Blake "could stumble. Something could happen.
"This hurricane, depending on how it goes and how she handles it, is the perfect example of something that could untrack a campaign."
The Sun Poll
The Baltimore Sun commissioned a telephone survey of 742 likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters from Aug. 22-24. The Sun's pollster, OpinionWorks of Annapolis, used the Baltimore City Board of Elections database to identify registered voters with a history of voting in municipal primary elections and gathered survey results from those who ranked their likelihood of voting in the September primary "50-50" or higher. The Sun's sample was designed to approximate the racial, gender, geographic, and age breakdown of the city's Democratic primary voting population, based on turnout patterns averaged over the past three primary elections. The margin of error for questions that reflect the entire sample is 3.6 percentage points, which means that 95 times out of 100, the actual answer obtained by surveying every Baltimore City Democratic primary voter would be within 3.6 percentage points of the answer obtained by using the sample.