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C. Fraser Smith: A real race for Baltimore mayor

Trailing candidates put the best face on discouraging poll numbers with the following:

“The only poll that matters is the one taken on Election Day.”

This would be called whistling past the graveyard in many places. Candidates want the campaign to go on. But, often, the poll that matters simply confirms the poll that dashed your hopes.

But then there are polls that matter a great deal. At the beginning of this year’s Democratic mayoral primary campaign in Baltimore, ex-Mayor Sheila Dixon led by what appeared to be prohibitive numbers. She was 11 points ahead of her closest rival, state Sen. Catherine Pugh.

Two months later, the Dixon-Pugh race looks dramatically different.

Pugh leads 26-to-24 percent in a survey conducted for The Sun and the University of Baltimore by OpinionWorks, a reliable polling firm in Annapolis. Steve Rabbe, the owner of OpinionWorks, says  the momentum has shifted to Pugh. Those voters who said they decided recently are going with Pugh.

So, a race that many thought was in hand for Dixon is anything but. The appearance of momentum can help a campaign by suggesting to voters that their votes really matter in the outcome.

Baltimoreans have been puzzled – and some distressed – by Dixon’s early strength. She left office under the sort of cloud that can be a career-stopper. She was convicted of using gift cards contributed to the city for use by poor families.

And yet Dixon’s comeback seemed to be riding on a wave of forgiveness. Many city residents thought she had been a good mayor – better than some had expected. There may also have been the feeling that her crimes were, in the scheme of things, less serious than those committed by many other public officials who had managed to survive.

The campaign dynamics surely have eroded Dixon’s opening lead. Words like “integrity” have been used along the way, although candidates have been careful to use language suggesting it is time to move forward – not back to Dixon, in other words.

Pugh’s strength is remarkable because she has barely started to re-introduce herself to the city. TV ads are coming, but Pugh’s strength seems to be coming as voters begin to get more serious about their choices.

TV can be, as we all know, quite powerful. Baltimoreans, says Raabe, are inclined to favor people who have paid their dues here, as Pugh has done without the criminal backdrop. One of the newcomers in the race, David Warnock, has spent $650,000 on TV, enough to make him first among the also-rans. All the other contenders are single digits or lower. Eight of these contenders are polling 1 percent or less.

Voters told OpinionWorks they are looking for change – again, a bit of trend away from Dixon. Crime in this bullet-ridden city stands at the top of the list of what voters care about. But they also mention honesty ahead even of jobs and better schools.

Many concerned citizens have worried that Dixon’s re-election would further tarnish the city’s image – after the ongoing Freddie Gray case.

The city needs help and support – not the look of a population determined to move against compelling challenges. Many parts of the city are plagued by poverty and joblessness, poor housing and health issues of deep concern.

Politically, the unrest that following Gray’s death led to the decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake not to seek re-election. Without an incumbent, the city’s political strength has waned. Other parts of the state have benefited from population shifts and the city’s decline in representation in Annapolis. Rawlings-Blake’s’ relationship with Gov. Larry Hogan has been precarious – all of which makes getting the transition right.

Pugh’s campaign must feel she is handling herself well in the many candidates’ debates. She’s also been able to raise a considerable sum of money for the campaign’s closing weeks. Money, in a race as close as this one, will matter. Her bank account becomes a reflection of concern that the city not, as her campaign says, move ahead.

The poll landed with some real interest. Many in the city – in and out of politics – had seemed inured to the idea that Dixon could not lose. I had heard recently that Dixon might actually have increased her lead. That was the word on the street as well. We are obliged to remember that “the street’s” margin of error is quite large.

Finally, though, as Rabbe points out, the race is still a race. Mistakes are made. People change their minds. And polling has become more difficult. Examples abound.

So, once again, polls may not be decisive. But they are important and powerful – right up to the point where they speak to the ultimate decision maker: the voter.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.