D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) joins Kojo, Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis in the studio.
A new WAMU 88.5/NBC 4 poll reveals what’s on voters minds as the mayoral race in the District heads into its final stretch. Topping the list for many voters are the economy, ethics, housing and crime. In a crowded field of eight candidates, we tease out where the incumbent stands, who’s breaking out of the pack and how issues like race will play into this election.
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the Pentagon proposes shrinking its ranks, including cuts to pay and benefits for military personnel. But first, with less than five weeks to go before the Democratic primary April 1, a new poll conducted by WAMU 88.5, NBC 4, the Washington Informer and (word?) gives us a snapshot as to how voters are going to narrow a crowded field in that primary.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMayor Vincent Gray is leading the eight candidates vying for the Democratic nod, but ethics concerns seem to be taking their toll and the poll results show that race continues to be an important factor here in the district. Joining me to discuss this is Patrick Madden. He is the district reporter for WAMU 88.5 News. Patrick, how's it going?
MR. PATRICK MADDENIt's good. The timing of this poll could not be better because of our debate tonight.
NNAMDIWe're having a mayoral forum here live from 7:00 to 9:00 at WAMU 88.5. Tonight, you can tune in and listen to it. There doesn't seem to be any big surprises in this poll, but you noticed some extremes, so to speak. Can you explain?
MADDENRight. So when you sort of dig into these numbers, on one hand you get the sense that voters really approve of the job Gray is doing. Among registered Democrats, it a 56 percent job approval rating, three-quarters say the city is moving in the right direction. All seem like big pluses if you're an incumbent. You know, this should be no contest. But -- and there's a big but here -- the scandal.
MADDENAnd when you look at...
NNAMDIThose are usually like onto victory numbers.
MADDENIt should be, but...
NNAMDIBut not in this case.
MADDEN...the big but is that among these same registered Democrats, 63 percent say he doesn't deserve reelection. So, again, one hand, mayor's doing a great job, but a large number of folks want a new mayor. And, again, it just comes down to the scandal.
NNAMDIMayor Gray is in the lead at this point in time. According to the poll, what were the numbers?
MADDENSo the numbers -- and again, we're looking at likely primary voters so this is a pretty small sample with a margin of error, 4.8 points. But among this small group that the pollsters believe are definitely going to vote in the primary, Gray is at 28 percent. Muriel Bowser, council member Bowser is at 20 percent, Evan 13 percent, Wells 12 percent, the rest are in single digits. To me, the big takeaway here is that Bowser is starting to emerge from the rest of the pack as sort of the challenger to Gray. And it's important to note that this poll took place -- in the middle of when these calls were being made by the pollsters was when she got The Washington Post endorsement.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that in a second. But allow me to invite the listeners in on the conversation. You can call 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Patrick Madden, our WAMU 88.5 district reporter about the WAMU, NBC 4, Washington Informer poll. 800-433-8850. Do you plan to vote in the upcoming Democratic primary? Are ethics questions around Mayor Vincent Gray's last mayoral campaign a factor for you?
NNAMDIYou can also send us email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. The emergence of Muriel Bowser as the second place finisher in the polls so far seems to point to the amount of work that she's done because I would have sworn, as I think I actually mentioned to her once before this campaign got started, that Ward 2 council member Jack Evans probably had wider name recognition around the city than she did.
NNAMDIBut she got out early and started knocking on doors often and that seems to be paying off. We'll get to The Washington Post endorsement in a second.
MADDENRight. So Bowser was really the first out of the gate. She was the first council member to announce that she was going to run for mayor. That obviously helps. She's raised a lot of money. She has sent out mailers, sort of getting her name out there. I think it also helps that she has long been associated with former mayor, Adrian Fenty, and that identification, I think, sort of gave her a sort of brand right out of the box when she announced that she was running.
NNAMDIAn in with a certain group of voters.
MADDENRight. A big chunk of voters that, A, you know, voted for Fenty last time and, B, are clearly, I think, going to be the anti-incumbent voters this time around. So she started, I think, with a strong association to that block of voters.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that she got The Washington Post endorsement. That was last week. How big a deal is that?
MADDENI mean, it really depends on who you talk to. Some people say that it's not a big deal, it's not what it once was and if you look at the track...
NNAMDIEspecially the people who didn't get it.
MADDENRight. And if you look at the track record of who The Washington Post has endorsed recently, it hasn't been that successful. In fact, I think they're maybe O for 5 for the last big council races. But at the same time, I think The Washington Post editorial board, the endorsement is very important in Ward 3, for example. That's going to be a big battleground for this race, a lot of voters there.
MADDENAnd, you know, that might be something that helps push voters one way or the other and it cannot hurt when you're a campaign and you're trying to send out mailers to say, hey, I got The Washington Post endorsement.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, what issues are most important to you in this mayor's race? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Did that Washington Post endorsement of Muriel Bowser give her a bump in this poll, do you think? Is it possible to tell?
MADDENIt's interesting. So I believe the Post endorsement came out on a Friday. That's kind of right in the middle of when the calls were being made. So you could argue both ways, that actually it's not really catching the sort of bump that you might see or, you know, maybe the bump that she has over her other council colleagues, like Evans and Wells, maybe it's due to that.
NNAMDIWhat about the other candidates? You mentioned Evans and Wells, where did their numbers fall in this poll? I'm looking at 13 percent for Jack Evans, 12 percent for Tommy Wells. What does that say?
MADDENIt's interesting. And, again, if we get into sort of the racial divide in the city, Wells and Evans are polling the strongest among white voters. They're just splitting the white vote essentially, whereas black voters are really -- that's where Gray is doing strong. I think he has something like 41 percent among registered Democrats or African American. And Bowser is the only candidate who's actually drawing from sort of balances support from both black and white voters.
NNAMDIAndy Shallal, 6 percent, but he actually leads Vincent Orange, 4 percent, and Vincent Orange was elected at large in this city. I've said, and I'll say it again, for me, Andy Shallal is the most interesting candidate in this race because he doesn't come from a background of being involved in politics in any way. He's best known as a restaurant owner in the city and, of course, there is Reta Jo Lewis and Carlos Allen, also in the race who are not elected officials themselves in the race, but they didn't have the kind of high profile that Andy Shallal had in the city. But what's happening with Vincent Orange?
MADDENWell, if you look at the numbers, they ask what are called, I guess, favorable/unfavorable ratings. And pretty much all the candidates here or most of the candidates have sort of high favorables and lower unfavorables. Gray is sort of even, but pretty sure Orange had a very high unfavorable rating for whatever reason and that might be part of the reason. I think Vincent Orange also -- as you mentioned, he is known because he's run citywide.
MADDENBut he also has lost a lot of elections and I think perhaps there's a question in voters' minds that, you know, is he for real, is he really a...
NNAMDIHow serious is he...
NNAMDI...in this particular race? As always in the district, the issue of race seems to be playing a significant role in this. What did we see in these results?
MADDENWell, we talked sort of how, you know, as it happens in many elections in the district, you know, it breaks down along racial lines. But what's really interesting is how the scandal is being perceived among voters.
NNAMDIThe scandal being the...
MADDENGray's 2010 campaign finance investigation. 82 percent of white voters who were registered Democrats say they're less likely to vote for Gray because of the scandal, but only a third of black voters say the same thing. So this scandal that obviously everyone's talking about, it's playing out differently. Another...
NNAMDIAnd I know that one of the reasons for that can -- you can go back to black elected officials in this city for a long time and what's been happening in the city over the past few years with the former chair of the city council and former council members, there is a strain of opinion in the African American community that tends to believe that African American leaders are targeted for investigation.
NNAMDIAnd that strain is what I think you're seeing being reflected in this poll here, that they think that African American officials are picked on, so to speak, more than white officials and so people are more willing than I think many white voters to overlook the investigation itself until it actually comes up with something.
MADDENExactly. And a sort of similar point, a data point in the polling, is that for registered Democrats that are black, it's the economy, jobs, that's top issue.
NNAMDII was about to ask about what issues are more important to voters, according to this poll.
MADDENAnd for the white registered Democrats, it's ethics. So, again, you're seeing sort of, as you mentioned, and I think when you talk about the economy and you talk about jobs, this sort of goes back to the larger point we talked about, the city is doing great and people believe Gray is doing a great job. It's just, I think, where people are -- the issues that they're -- how they're going to vote and what matters to them.
NNAMDIYou mentioned how voters feel about the direction the city is going in and the job Mayor Gray's doing. In both cases, they seem to feel that it's okay. Those strong positives should bode well for an incumbent, but one only has to look back four years ago to Adrian Fenty. He had great approval ratings, but nevertheless, didn't win.
MADDENIt's interesting how this dynamic almost mirrors, as you said, what happened in 2010. Adrian Fenty had great job approval ratings. People thought he was a very effective mayor. They liked school reform, the sort of real estate boom that started when Fenty took over, but there seemed to be that people didn't -- I don't know if they didn't like him personally or whether it was his governing style, but they voted him out.
MADDENI think the difference this time around is that it's a crowded field, that the fact that there are eight candidates, I mean, you can say how many are viable, but there is a large, I would say, anti-incumbent sentiment out there. But it is being split and that's why Gray, even at just 28 percent, that's his rating in this poll, he's clearly ahead of the pack.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, the big problem he has, of course, is whether or not people believe what he has to say about what went on in his 2010 campaign. Could you tell us a little bit about how close that investigation has come so far to Mayor Gray himself?
MADDENIt's a good point to raise because Gray has not been indicted, arrested. He has not come up at all. The businessman who is alleged to be sort of the financier of the Shadow campaign, he also has not been arrested and indicted. So it's, you know, Gray has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but, and again we get to the big buts here, for people associated with Gray's campaign, including people that, you know, were close to Gray, have pleaded guilty to crimes connected to what when on during that 2010 campaign.
MADDENSo it's also, I think, hard for Gray, his campaign to say, you know, this has nothing to do with him.
NNAMDIHave ethics questions been playing out in terms of campaign strategies that we've been seeing here? And if so, how have they been influencing campaign strategies?
MADDENSure. I would say, take Tommy Wells for example. He has been very explicit in running, you know, he mentions the campaign, he mentions the name of the businessman, you know, who's thought to be behind the shadow campaign almost every chance he gets, whether it's a question about religion, he'll bring it back to the ethics conversation, you know. A question about parking, it'll come back to the ethics conversation.
MADDENThe other candidates, to my surprise, haven't been as forward sort of attacking Gray on this issue because clearly -- and it wasn't just this poll. All the polls show that Gray is vulnerable on this issue of ethics and the scandal and so far, there hasn't been -- if you go to the forums, it isn't mentioned that much.
NNAMDIThere are eight Democratic candidates. How are voters figuring out where each of them stands and what they might bring to the mayor's office. Of course, that will all be clearer after tonight's debate here. But so far, how have they been trying to figure it out?
MADDENIt's always an interesting dynamic, especially in the city, because we have -- it feels like hundreds of these sort of mayoral forums all around the city. Like last night I believe there were two of them. So the candidates running back and forth. I mean I'm hoping that our debate tonight will be the debate of the season, where we can get into some of these issues. But it's a good question.
MADDENThe main candidates running are all former council -- or not former. They are council members. So you obviously judge them on their legislative record. And I think it's harder, say Andy Shallal, because he is an outsider, it's harder to really get policy details. But my advice to voters is to listen to tonight's debate.
NNAMDIAnd listen very carefully. In a crowded field like this the incumbent generally benefits, but many voters seem to be open to changing their minds. 12 percent are still undecided. 19 percent of those who say they actually support a candidate, also say, well, we might vote differently by the time the primary rolls around. What does all of that mean for somebody like Mayor Gray?
MADDENWell, I think it means it's a very fluid race, as most primaries are. And one other sort of data point that I'll throw in there is this question about who is your second choice. And that's sort of well, if you can't vote for your main person or you don't think they're going to win, who would you vote for? And that person -- the top vote getter for second choice is Muriel Bowser. So, again, and according to the pollsters that we spoke with, that is usually indicative of -- that's an important thing to look at, in terms of momentum and what happens in the final weeks.
NNAMDIShe is not only leading the second-choice race, so to speak, she apparently is also leading in the race for attracting voters of both races, black and white.
MADDENRight. And I think that -- if you want to call it crossover appeal. I think that's going to be very important in the race because that's the only way to sort of appeal broadly to get enough votes to win.
NNAMDIWell, in a heavily Democratic place like the District, the Democratic primary is pretty important. Usually to the point of being the deciding factor. On the other hand, the Democratic winner of the primary on April 1st should not rule out a serious challenger in the general election. We got an email from Richard in D.C., who says "Bowser has my vote in the primary. I'm sick of old style city politics like Gray's. If Gray wins, I vote for Catania."
NNAMDIDavid Catania, the at-large councilmember whose name is being bandied about, who's even garnered endorsement, but who has not even said he'll run. So this won't necessarily be over after the Democratic primary.
MADDENWell, this is what's so fascinating to me, is that the council -- and they had to move the primary date around for other reasons, but they really pushed the primary to an early date. And it was thought that it clearly gives them an advantage over their challengers, because it's really hard -- it's really early in the season to be going out and getting signatures, talking to voters, canvassing, all those things. So it's sort of seen as this way to really -- it helps the incumbents to move the primary up to April.
MADDENBut the sort of side effect is that it is a really long general election race. And so if you're someone who is like David Catania and can pull Democrats to his side -- and clearly, from the polling we've looked at, 43 percent of registered Democrats say they will not vote for Mayor Gray. So if you're someone who has name recognition among registered Democrats and can pull from the universe of independents and Republicans and everyone else, that's pretty formidable.
NNAMDITonight, as we mentioned, too many times already, WAMU's hosting a forum for all eight Democratic candidates. It'll air live on the air between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. It will be rebroadcast tomorrow during the hours of this program, noon to 2:00 p.m. What do you expect the candidates will be trying to do in tonight's debate?
MADDENWell, it depends. Has the poll changed the dynamic of the race? Is it now clear that Muriel Bowser is now the second? Right, the challenger? And if so, does that mean that the candidates who are in third, fourth, fifth place, are they now sort of tossing their grenades…
MADDEN…her way, as opposed to Mayor Gray? So I think there might be a little changing of tactics. It'll be interesting tonight to see sort of who the candidates are going after and what their message is.
NNAMDIAnd of course Patrick Madden himself will be one of the panelists in this debate, along with Tom Sherwood and our own Kavitha Cardoza. That's 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. right here. It repeats tomorrow noon to 2:00 in this space. Patrick Madden, thank you so much for joining us. See you later.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the Pentagon proposes shrinking its ranks, including cuts to pay and benefits for military personnel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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