Though a new poll shows Kurt Schmoke with a commanding lead in the mayor's race, it also shows that fewer than half the people polled think Baltimore is heading in the right direction.
The poll, commissioned by the Democratic Party of Maryland and not intended for release to the public, also gives Schmoke a 71 percent approval rating as an individual. This drops to a 60 percent approval rating, however, when voters were asked to evaluate his performance as mayor.
Further, Schmoke gets a 15 percent negative rating from voters. By comparison, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who recently took controversial stands on council redistricting and councilmanic pay raises, gets only a 6 percent negative rating in the same poll.
"In one sense, a 15 percent negative rating is not bad," an analyst familiar with the poll results said. "Still, Clarke does much better, and she takes tough stands. The mayor seems to be trying to please everybody, but twice as many people don't like him."
When asked whether the city is heading in the right direction, 43 percent of those polled said yes, 37 percent said no, and 20 percent were undecided.
But when it came to choosing the Democratic candidate for mayor in the Sept. 12 primary, those polled were much less divided: Schmoke got 61 percent, "Du" Burns got 20 percent, and William Swisher got 6 percent. About 14 percent were undecided. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4 percent.
The poll also indicates that Governor Schaefer's endorsement, something Burns might hope to get, will mean very little: Only one out of five voters said the governor's endorsement would favorably influence their decision.
Those polled also were asked to list the two or three issues or problems that were most important to them. The list, in order, was: education, crime/violence, drugs, taxes, the economy, affordable housing, the homeless, and more and better police.
The poll was conducted in the last week of June and is made up of 420 completed interviews with likely voters in the city's 3rd District. That district apparently was selected because it comes reasonably close to representing the voting makeup of the city as a whole.
"The 61 percent vote for Schmoke sounds very good," the analyst familiar with the poll said, "but the campaign really hasn't heated up yet, and Schmoke will never hold on to that kind of lead.
"And I would be concerned if I were in the Schmoke camp. I really would be sensitive to trying to get my record clarified and to hook into the education issue.
"Having a 15 percent personal negative rating isn't all that bad for someone who has been mayor for four years. But when you add the number of people who don't think the city is heading in the right direction [37 percent] and the number of undecided [20 percent], you have nearly 60 percent of the city saying things aren't going well.
"If I were Schmoke, I certainly would want to keep this race to no less than a three-candidate race. Three serious candidates. He would not want it to shrink to two."
The analyst believes, in other words, that Schmoke would not want a repeat of the 1987 election, in which he and Burns were the only serious candidates. Schmoke narrowly won that election, by about 6,000 votes.
A multicandidate election almost always favors the incumbent, since the anti-incumbent vote is split so many ways. There are eight declared candidates for mayor, though only Schmoke, Burns and Swisher have much name recognition.
Larry Gibson, Schmoke's campaign manager, said he was pleased by the poll results. As to the 43 percent who think the city is heading in the right direction vs. 37 percent who do not, Gibson said: "In a recession and with the impact that is having on cities, a 43-37 split is a strong positive. Go to any major city and ask that question and you'll get a 2-1 negative vote. That is a very good result."
As to the mayor's 15 percent negative rating vs. a 6 percent negative rating for Mary Pat Clarke, Gibson said: "Across the board, people in legislative offices will get higher approval ratings. They don't have to manage a program."
Gibson was also guardedly pleased about the 61 percent in the poll who favored Schmoke in the primary race. "No one wins by that margin, though it is encouraging," Gibson said. "We are going to work hard in this campaign. We are taking nothing for granted."
In addition, Gibson pointed out that since the 3rd District has a slightly larger white voting population than the city as a whole (about 45 percent vs. 40 percent), the poll result was especially good for Schmoke, who lost the white vote to Burns last time.
Gibson also claimed the campaign was generally unconcerned as to how many candidates ran against Schmoke. "It's not something we can control," he said. "We will essentially run the same campaign no matter how many candidates are in the race. We are running on the mayor's strong record."
When asked about the poll, Schmoke said through his spokesman that he was concerned with only one poll: the one taken on Election Day.