The race to win the Democratic primary for Baltimore City mayor is defined by a large pool of undecided voters, with former mayor Shelia Dixon enjoying a small lead, followed by Brandon Scott and Thiru Vignarajah, according to a new poll from WYPR, The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
Results of the WYPR, Sun and UB poll are based on a survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters in Baltimore. The poll was conducted by OpinionWorks of Annapolis. Voters were randomly selected from a file provided by the city's Board of Elections; some were sent a postcard indicating they might be called. All voters were called by trained interviewers between February 20 - 29. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
"There are places where it appears to be a statistical dead heat among those in second, third, fourth and even some clearly within striking range of former Mayor Dixon," said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. "There's still two months to go for someone to emerge."
Results: support + leaning towards
Shelia Dixon — 16%
Brandon Scott — 10%
Thiru Vignarajah — 10%
T.J. Smith — 9%
Mary Miller — 7%
Jack Young — 6%
Mary Washington — 5%
Stokey Cannady — 1%
Undecided — 31%
Would not say — 4%
Polled voters were asked who they would cast their ballots for if the April primary were today. If they said they were undecided, they were asked which candidate they lean toward.
Dixon served as the mayor of Baltimore from 2007 to 2010. She was convicted of embezzlement during her time in office and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2016, losing narrowly to Catherine Pugh, who positioned herself an anti-Dixon candidate. During her time as mayor, violent crime declined. Every mayor since Dixon has been unable to lower those numbers. She also has the strongest support from the poll's black voters.
"Perhaps former Mayor Dixon, not on trust, but on crime rate, could be getting some benefit beyond name recognition," Hartley said. "There may be an interest in bringing back a mayor who some believe was quite successful."
"She's well known. She has a reputation for getting things done. She has a strong base of support," said Steve Raabe, the owner of OpinionWorks and a polling expert.
Her lead, however, is not commanding, Raabe said. With 31% of voters who are likely to cast a ballot in April undecided, the race is wide open.
City Council President Brandon Scott is the only candidate who has double-digit support from both the poll's white and black voters.
The 35-year-old represented the 2nd district of the Baltimore City Council from 2011 to 2019. He was elected City Council President by his council peers shortly after Pugh resigned amid the Healthy Holly scandal and former Council President Jack Young automatically stepped into her office.
Raabe noted that past mayoral candidates who command a significant share of the city's white vote are generally unable to win over black voters. Scott's broad support, Raabe said, is key.
His visibility as City Council President in the wake of Pugh's resignation has been clearly helpful, Hartley said. "He has trumpeted ethics reforms at a time when those ethics reforms are being called for by citizens of the city."
Thiru Vignarajah, a former prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore State's Attorney in 2017, trails Scott. He is the favorite of the poll's white voters; 22% of them say he has their vote. He has 5% of the poll's black vote.
Vignarajah showed strong fundraising numbers earlier this year and reporting raising over $1 million. How that money will be spent, Harltey said, is crucial.
T.J. Smith, a former spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, has the second most support among black voters, behind Dixon and ahead of Scott. He and Vignarajah have the largest share of the poll's voters who said the city is moving in the wrong direction.
"They are change candidates, apparently," Raabe said.
Mary Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive who served as the Under Secretary for Domestic Finance and Acting Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the Obama administration, has the fastest growing support; around 67% of her polled supporters decided on her within the last week. She polled at 15% for white voters, second to Vignarajah.
Despite Jack Young’s incumbency and name recognition, he is trailing Miller and Smith, candidates who have had to fight for the spotlight in a way that the mayor has not.
"Maybe his message on the work that he's done for so many years as council president is not getting through in the noise of so many candidates," said Hartley.
Voters may also be dissuaded by Young's insider status in the wake of the Healthy Holly scandal, he said.
Young served as City Council President from 2010 to 2019 until he became mayor after Pugh’s resignation.
"Mayor Young, and perhaps Brandon Scott to some degree, are being fairly or unfairly tagged with the ‘you were on the watch when all of this happened,' even though [the scandal] may not have been any of their faults," Hartley said.
Despite her place toward the back of the pack, Mary Washington "really is climbing as a political leader, with some strong support in one area of the city," Hartley said. She has ability to emerge if she can expand that support, he said.
The progressive educator and state senator currently represents Baltimore’s 43rd district. She served as a state delegate from 2011 to 2019.
The poll also tested for voters’ preferred second choice candidates – a key statistic in a race characterized by uncertainty. Its results may show which candidates could curry votes from the supporters of other candidates who fail to take off. Scott leads in the second choice category.
Brandon Scott — 17%
T.J. Smith — 12%
Jack Young — 11%
Shelia Dixon — 11%
Thiru Vignarajah — 10%
Mary Washington — 8%
Mary Miller — 7%
Stokey Cannady — 2%
The poll also asked voters what is the most important issue they want the next mayor to address. Overwhelmingly, they said tackling crime is their biggest concern, followed by honesty/integrity and schools/youth. Voters polled even use similar phrasing, suggesting there are a handful of broadly shared concerns across the city.
Address crime — 50%
Honesty/integrity — 21%
Schools/youth — 15%
Vision/leadership — 9%
Clean up Baltimore — 8%
Economic/community development — 5%
Taxes — 4%
Help people in need — 2%
Housing — 1%
Something else — 7%
Not sure/nothing comes to mind — 4%
"We're gonna be on the lookout for, number one, a candidate or candidates that are able to bridge any of the divides in the city," said Raabe. "If a candidate in this race can begin to crystallize and articulate what the path forward might be through what the city is experiencing now, I think that that candidate could catch fire."