Muriel Bowser is second to Vincent Gray in support among likely Democratic voters, but she's first among the second-choice candidates.
Being second may not usually count for much, but when it comes to D.C.'s crowded mayoral race, it actually might mean a lot.
According to a poll conducted by WAMU, NBC4, the Washington Informer, and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) trails Mayor Vincent Gray among likely Democratic voters, 28 percent to 20 percent.
But among that same subset of voters, Bowser emerged as the voters' top second choice, claiming 21 percent, above Council member Jack Evans' (D-Ward 2) 18 percent and Gray's 12 percent.
And while many voters are committed to their candidates, 19 percent of those already siding with one say they might change their minds by the April 1 primary. That number is even higher for Gray: of those that say they back him, 31 percent admit that they may vote differently on Election Day.
Those numbers make for a fluid race, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, and one that could benefit Bowser.
"If we get down to closer to the primary and people start voting strategically as sometimes happens in multi-candidate fields, the second choice question, I think, may come into play," he says.
"The second choice clearly does not advantage Gray at this point. He has the lead, but if people start looking strategically at the race, their preferences may be for one of the other leading candidates more than it is for Gray."
Still, Miringoff says that Gray benefits from a large field of challengers, which is creating a dynamic that has been seen in past D.C. Council races where incumbents have won.
In 2012, Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) won re-election after challengers Sekou Biddle and Peter Shapiro split votes. And in a 2013 special election, Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) emerged victorious after challenger Matt Frumin rejected calls that he drop out in favor of second-place finisher Elissa Silverman. In that election, Frumin's 6,000 votes would have put Silverman over Bonds in the final count.
The problem for many challengers is D.C.'s winner-take-all election system, say many political analysts and advocates. Also, the ongoing debates among supporters of challengers over whether to coalesce around a single candidate.
Last year The Washington Post editorial board called for a system of instant runoff voting, under which voters would be allowed to rank their choices. If any one candidate exceeded the 50 percent mark, they would win. If not, the top two vote-getters would move on to the general election.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) says he will introduce a bill calling for instant runoff voting and open primaries next week.
Greater Greater Washington, an urbanist blog that has been sympathetic to Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), recently published an article titled, "Vote for mayor with your heart, or strategically?" In it, author David Alpert highlighted the struggle that supporters of candidates not polling well currently face.
"[S]ome voters who prefer a candidate other than Gray or Bowser have considered switching their support to the candidate among those two who they consider best, or at least not worst," he wrote.
While that could be Bowser, Gray could also benefit from supporters of other candidates jumping to his side. According to the poll, 20 percent of her supporters say they would consider changing their vote ahead of the primary.
For Silverman, though, the issue of strategic voting and second choices is less clear-cut than in other elections, in part because — as the polls show — voters generally think the city is going in the right direction.
"I don't think that the strategic voting or this issue of the second-choice vote is as big as other people think," she says.
"[The] anti-Gray vote is solid, but it's split among various candidates and I'm not sure what would consolidate those voters to one candidate. And then I think there are certain people that would support another candidate beside Mayor Gray right now, but if that candidate somehow wasn't that strong, they may vote for Mayor Gray," she adds.
The poll also found 12 percent of likely Democratic voters undecided.