With just six weeks go to before Baltimore's highly competitive Democratic mayoral primary, a new poll from The Sun and University of Baltimore shows some movement in a race that had been stable for months. Sen. Catherine Pugh, who has shown real fundraising and organizational strength, has pulled even with long-time front-runner former mayor Sheila Dixon. Here's a peek at what these results tell us about how this race could play out.
Dixon is strong but not unbeatable
When The Sun and UB first polled on this race in November, shortly after incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced she would not seek re-election, Ms. Dixon was leading the pack with 24 percent of the vote. In January, when Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies polled in this race, she was leading with 27 percent of the vote — statistically speaking, no different from The Sun's results, given the margins of error. This month, when The Sun and UB polled again, she was still at 24 percent. Her support is not going away, no matter how much outside groups or other candidates may attack her based on the ethical failures that forced her from office six years ago. Those who said they supported her were more likely by far than the backers of any other candidate to say their support was firm and far less likely to say they might change their minds.
But her support isn't growing either. And this survey underscored the idea that it will need to grow in order for her to reclaim her old job. Despite the large number of compelling candidates in the race, Ms. Pugh has already consolidated enough support to draw even with Ms. Dixon (statistically speaking), and there's room among the undecideds for another candidate to do so as well.
This isn't yet a two-woman race, but it's close
Ms. Dixon and Ms. Pugh are statistically tied with each other — and with "undecided." Fully a quarter of the electorate haven't made up their minds, and if one of the other major candidates could win them over in large numbers, he or she could still challenge the two front-runners. Businessman David Warnock is in the best position with 10 percent of the vote, but attorney Elizabeth Embry (5 percent) and councilmen Nick Mosby (6 percent) and Carl Stokes (3 percent) could still make a run.
The trouble for them, though, is that someone at this point would have to capture virtually all of the undecided vote and consolidate support from rivals, and momentum is clearly on Senator Pugh's side. Ms. Dixon's supporters tend to have made up their mind long ago, but among those who decided recently, Ms. Pugh is pulling away. She's getting the support of 45 percent of those who decided within the last week and 41 percent of those who decided in the last month.
Money helps, but it's not enough
Ms. Pugh has been highly successful at raising money and has run ads on television, but the evidence suggests that alone doesn't explain her rise in the polls. Mr. Warnock's television ads have far outnumbered hers. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on TV since the first Sun/UB poll, and it has boosted his support by five percentage points, not a significant difference considering the margins of error of the two polls. Ms. Embry is on TV, too, and has been among the most successful candidates at fundraising, but her support is essentially unchanged since November. Meanwhile, Ms. Dixon has lagged in fundraising and has not begun airing ads, and it hasn't hurt her one bit.
Voters aren't gravitating to outsiders
Democratic primary voters believe, by a 52 percent to 35 percent margin, that the city is on the wrong track. The unrest last year after Freddie Gray's death made clear the extent to which Baltimore's leaders have failed over the years to meet residents' needs. Yet the two leading candidates are a former mayor and a state senator who has made two previous runs for city-wide office. Two non-politicians, Mr. Warnock and Ms. Embry, are registering in the polls but have yet to display broad support — neither, for example, has shown much ability to attract African-American voters so far. And DeRay Mckesson, a nationally prominent Black Lives Matter activist and Baltimore native who has produced one of the better platforms among the candidates, didn't show up in the poll at all. Despite all the desire for new leadership, voters are gravitating toward names they know.
Turnout is the wild card
Another advantage for Ms. Pugh is her strong support from older voters, who tend to be more reliable when it comes to actually showing up on election day. Her support grows among older age groups and is highest among those over 65. Ms. Dixon's supporters skew younger. The only other candidate with disproportionate support among young voters is Mr. Mosby. Given how low turnout has been in previous mayoral primaries, if someone can appeal strongly enough to young voters to bring more of them into the process, he or she could have a big advantage. The X-factor is the fact that this is the first time in recent memory that the city's election cycle has been synced up with the presidential primaries. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders may well be over by late April, but Baltimore is a crucial battleground between Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen in the race for U.S. Senate. Their turnout efforts have the potential to affect the results in the mayoral race, depending on whom they attract to the polls.