A new poll from WYPR, the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore shows former mayor Sheila Dixon, Mary Miller and City Council President Brandon Scott in a statistical three-way tie in the Baltimore City mayoral Democratic primary race, with 22% of voters still undecided just two weeks shy of the election.
“A couple of candidates could transcend, depending on how things go,” said Steve Raabe, the owner of OpinionWorks, which conducted the poll. “This is a race that really any one of three or four people could still win.”
Pollsters spoke to 400 likely primary voters over the phone from May 11 to May 18. The poll respondents reflect the city’s electorate, meaning they’re mostly black, female and over the age of 50. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Voters were asked, “If the April Democratic primary election for Baltimore Mayor were held today, who would you vote for? (If initially undecided): “Whom do you lean towards at this time?”
Results, race for mayor:
Sheila Dixon - 18%
Mary Miller - 18%
Brandon Scott - 15%
Thiru Vignarajah - 11%
T.J. Smith - 6%
Bernard C. “Jack” Young - 5%
Stokey Cannady - *%
Rikki Vaughn - *%
Someone else- 1%
Would not say - 4%
Undecided - 22%
*Less than one percent
WYPR, the Sun and UB commissioned a similar mayoral poll in February. Dixon and Scott still enjoy prominent positions in the front of a crowded pack, while former T. Rowe Price executive Mary Miller’s support grew more than any of her opponents, due in part to a hefty campaign finance account. Former Deputy Attorney General of Maryland Thiru Vignarajah is behind the top three, but still within striking distance, said Raabe.
Dixon served as the mayor of Baltimore from 2007 to 2010. She resigned after she was convicted of misappropriation of gift cards during her time in office. In 2016, she ran unsuccessfully for mayor, narrowly losing to Catherine Pugh, who positioned herself as the anti-Dixon alternative.
During Dixon’s tenure, homicides and violent crime declined, a feat that every mayor since has been unable to replicate -- and a major tenet of her campaign. The 66-year-old has the strongest support from the poll's black voters. Those voters are locked in, but static: while three-quarters of her support is firm, most people who decided on her made up their minds over a month ago.
“People have strong feelings about her, pros and cons,” Raabe said. “I think she's got to hope for a divided vote among her opponents, or for her key opponents to make a mistake or something like that in these final days. She could still certainly win, but other candidates are showing a lot more momentum at this point.”
City Council President Scott is showing movement: about 20 percent of his supporters say they decided on him within this past week. He has strong support from both black and white voters.
“Brandon has a versatility to his support that could be very, very beneficial to him,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.
Scott, 36, represented Baltimore City’s 2nd district on the city council from 2011 to 2019. He was elected to his current position by council peers after former Council President Jack Young stepped into the mayor’s office last spring. Scott has benefited from the visibility of his current role, as well as the ethics reforms he’s introduced in the wake of former mayor Catherine Pugh’s scandal, Hartley said.
He is enormously popular with younger voters. “He's literally winning everybody under 50,” Raabe said.
“So one of the really important factors in this race for him is turnout,” the pollster said. “You do not expect a large number of people under age 35 to vote in this primary election. That's just historically not what younger people do. But this could be a different election.”
Mary Miller is a former Under Secretary for Domestic Finance and a former Acting Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; the 64-year-old carried out both roles during the Obama administration. In February, Vignarajah was the favorite of white voters; Miller now has that top spot. The former businesswoman has pumped over a million dollars of her own money into the race, which has translated to a flood of mailers and television ads.
Miller made news last week, after the Sun published a leaked email from a super PAC supporting her. Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership, a now-shuttered group led by Martin G. Knott Jr., planned to send ads attacking Scott and Vignarajah to white voters throughout the majority-black city in order to divert their supporters to her.
By law, super PACs may raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals but may not coordinate directly with parties or candidates. Miller has decried the group’s tactics.
The news broke as the poll was being conducted; it captured voters both before and after the email leaked. Miller has 31% of white votes. Even unanimous support from white voters won’t be enough to win the race, said Rabbe.
“This race will be decided by African-American voters,” said Raabe. “They are the majority of the city and any candidate coming out of the white community needs to go into the rest of the city and appeal broadly. And that needs to be the strategy of anybody who wants to be successful.”
About 48 percent of her supporters say they’re firmly behind her.
“That's a phenomenon of lots of late deciders,” Raabe said. “That vote could firm up, but it also could happen an insurgent candidate like that could peak and maybe she starts to fall off at some point. That is a formula for volatility.”
Vignarajah ran for Baltimore City State's Attorney in 2018. He came in third in the Democratic primary -- a loss, but one that boosted his name recognition, said Hartley. The 43-year-old is also a former city and federal prosecutor, experiences that are often touted by his campaign.
Vignarajah made headlines this year after he asked a police officer that pulled him over on Greenmount Ave. to turn off his body camera. He has the most cash on hand out of any other candidates, campaign finance data from late last month shows. Some of that money comes from a super PAC funded in part by supporters of Baltimore’s airplane surveillance program.
The lawyer polled stronger among people over 50 than younger voters and is the second most popular candidate among white voters.
Despite his status as an incumbent, Mayor Young polled at the bottom of the pack. The 65-year-old has name recognition from serving as city council president for nearly a decade, but he was not elected to his current post: Young automatically entered the mayor’s office when Catherine Pugh resigned amid disgrace. It’s possible that voters fairly or unfairly associate him with the Healthy Holly scandal, said Hartley.
“These results definitely look disappointing for the incumbent mayor,” the dean said.
Those who are supporting Young say they’re on his team all the way: 78 percent of his supporters’ votes are firm.
“People who think the city is going in the right direction like him most of all, but that group of people is quite small,” said Raabe. “He's not benefiting from the sort of crossover vote or any sort of a change vote or any sort of new vote, so it's not looking like Jack Young is going to come through successfully.”
Former Baltimore Police Department spokesman TJ Smith’s frontline support dropped since the poll’s February counterpart, a phenomenon Raabe said sometimes occurs when candidates fail to break out of single digit polling numbers.
The poll also asked respondents what their biggest concerns are.
“There are a number of problems facing the City. But if you could choose just one, what is the most urgent thing you want the next Mayor to do?”
Stop violent crime in the City - 60%
Protect residents from COVID-19 - 10%
Get the economy going - 6%
Poverty/Inequality - 4%
Education/Schools/Youth - 3%
Corruption - 3%
Other responses - 4%
All of the above - 9%
Not sure - 2%
“Crime is a pulsating concern in the city, even during these times,” said Raabe. “During these times of economic collapse, it really is still the pressing problem of crime -- so all of these candidates need to be extremely cognizant of that.”