Rawlings-Blake in a walk? Don't be so sure

The Sun poll of the mayor's race shows the incumbent, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, with a commanding lead. This should not come as a total surprise — she has tremendous name recognition, she has won citywide before, and she has raised far more money than her rivals. She faces several strong challengers, but she has well more support than all of them put together. With just over two weeks to go before the Democratic primary, it would be understandable for city residents — both those who support her and those who don't — to figure that the outcome is a foregone conclusion and that there is no point in voting. That would be a mistake. Here's why.

There's no reason to think the poll is inaccurate — it was conducted by OpinionWorks of Annapolis, a well-established firm that has done work for The Sun for several years and produced accurate results. As with any poll, there is a small chance (5 percent) that the true figures are off by more than the margin of error would suggest, but the survey was conducted according to generally accepted practices for statistical sampling. It is worth noting that none of the mayor's challengers are contesting its validity; in fact, one of them, Otis Rolley, issued a fundraising appeal after the poll was released pointing to it as evidence of his growing momentum and ability to beat Ms. Rawlings-Blake.

There are a couple of cliches about political polls that are worth repeating. One is that polls are just a snapshot in time, not a prediction, and the other is that the only poll that matters is the one on election day. Both are the kind of thing one typically hears from losing candidates to explain away unfavorable results, but the particular circumstances of this race may give them greater than usual salience.

Although there isn't much time left before the election, major events could rapidly change the race's dynamics. Hurricane Irene may not have changed the candidates' standing much — it caused relatively little damage and, thus, the mayor's response to it may be less crucial to the outcome than would otherwise have been the case. But a long stretch without power could put voters in a sour mood, even if delays aren't really the mayor's fault. And just before the election, Baltimore will host its inaugural Grand Prix, an event on which the mayor has staked a great deal of political capital. If it is widely viewed as a success, it could cement her standing, but if people think it was a flop — and one that tied the city in knots — it could have the opposite effect. These sorts of last-minute shifts in public opinion have been known to happen; in 1979, the city of Chicago's lackluster response to a series of January snowstorms launched a long-shot candidate, Jane Byrne, to a landslide victory in the February Democratic primary.

But even if nothing like that happens, it's possible for the actual result on election day to be markedly different from what The Sun's poll, or any other, might find. All political polls rely on assumptions about who is going to bother to vote on election day, and The Sun's poll uses a conservative and usually reliable method, which is to start from a list of people who have voted in Baltimore Democratic primaries in the past and use follow-up questions to gauge their likelihood to vote this year. Such a method may leave out some people who don't typically vote but are particularly excited by a candidate, but it is rare for so many new voters to turn out that it makes a big difference in the outcome, particularly in a race where one candidate holds so wide an apparent lead as Ms. Rawlings-Blake does.

The exception to that rule is in a low-turnout election, which the Baltimore Democratic mayoral primary is likely to be. In that circumstance, a challenger who can bring a relatively small number of new voters to the process can make a big difference in the final result. That's what happened in the city state's attorney's race last year, when challenger Gregg Bernstein received just 32,000 votes, but that was enough to beat longtime incumbent Patricia Jessamy by a by a 1,400-vote margin. Turnout for mayoral primaries has been steadily declining in Baltimore — due in no small part to the fact that they are held in years when no state or federal offices are on the ballot — and the winner this time may not need many more votes than Mr. Bernstein got. That's a number within reach of a determined and well-organized grass-roots campaign.

The bottom line is this: Whether you support Mayor Rawlings-Blake or one of her challengers, it is still crucial that you vote.

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