The eight D.C. mayoral candidates at WAMU's debate on February 26.
With early voting underway and the primary just over a week off, Mayor Vincent Gray and Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) are neck and neck in the race for D.C.'s highest office.
A new poll commissioned by WAMU's the Kojo Nnamdi Show and the Washington City Paper finds Gray and Bowser each drawing 27 percent from likely voters, with Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) pulling 13 percent and Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) nine percent.
"It really looks like a two-candidate race at this point," says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, the national firm that conducted the poll.
"Vincent Gray or Muriel Bowser is overwhelmingly likely to win the primary in a couple of weeks. The race really couldn't be any closer right now. Our previous polling had found Gray ahead, so Bowser seems to have the momentum in the race," he says.
Restaurant owner Andy Shallal polls at seven percent, Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) at two percent and former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis at one percent. Fourteen percent of voters say they are undecided.
The poll reached 860 likely voters on landline phones between March 13-16. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.
The statistical dead heat between Gray and Bowser shows how the race has tightened since January, when a Washington Post poll found Gray outpacing Bowser 24 to 12. A late-February WAMU/NBC4/Marist poll showed Bowser gaining ground, pulling 20 percent from likely Democratic voters, compared to Gray's 28 percent.
Part of that tightening has been caused by the ongoing federal investigation into Gray's troubled 2010 campaign, which burst back into the news in early March — just before the poll was conducted — when Thompson pleaded guilty to spearheading an illicit "shadow campaign" that brought over $650,000 to Gray's 2010 bid to unseat then-mayor Adrian Fenty. Federal prosecutors claimed in court that Gray knew of the illegal effort, a charge he has long denied.
Thompson's plea prompted Gray to fire back, saying that while he met with the businessman during the 2010 campaign, he was unaware of any illegal fundraising on his behalf. At his annual State of the District address, Gray went further, asking residents who they trusted more: Thompson, or him?
"So I ask you, who do you believe? A greedy man attempting to save himself, or me, a public servant who has dedicated his entire career to giving back to our communities?" he said.
The KNS/City Paper poll answers that question: 48 percent of likely voters say they believe Thompson, while only 24 percent believe Gray. Twenty-eight percent are undecided.
In an appearance on NewsChannel 8's NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt on Thursday, Gray urged voters to focus only on how he has governed. "I think that at the end of the day, this is an election that should be based on how well is this city running. I don't think anyone can legitimately claim that this city is not running well," he said.
According to the poll, those already backing Gray are passionate in their defense of him — 38 percent of Gray's supporters say they back him "strongly," compared to 29 percent for Bowser.
But despite that strong base of support, Jensen says that the polling numbers serve as evidence of how few voters really trust Gray.
"There's no doubt that the overwhelming majority of voters in D.C. want to put Vince Gray out of office. The only reason he has any chance at all of being re-elected is that he has such a big field, and when you see these numbers that two-to-one people support Jeffrey Thompson over Vince Gray, it shows just how little credibility Vince Gray has with most voters," he says.
But with eight candidates splitting the available votes, Gray may manage a narrow victory on April 1, says Jensen, unless supporters of other candidates choose to go with a candidate they believe has the best chance to beat him.
According to the KNS/City Paper poll, that's Bowser. Thirty-nine percent of likely voters who don't feel strongly about their first choice say they would select Bowser instead, with Evans coming in second at 18 percent. Gray only ranked at 10 percent.
That's consistent with the WAMU/NBC4/Marist poll, which similarly found Bowser leading among second choices, and raises the specter of strategic voting — when a voter chooses who they think can win instead of who they truly prefer.
"There's a pretty decent chance that enough of those folks are going to decide in the last week-and-a-half, 'Well, my first choice isn't going to win but I really want to stop Vincent Gray from being re-elected.' There's a pretty decent chance that some of those folks could move over to Muriel Bowser and hand her this primary," says Jensen.
The poll also evidenced a distinct racial gap in support for particular candidates. Gray enjoys support from 40 percent of African American voters and 27 percent of Hispanic voters, while only 10 percent of white voters said they would pick him. A similar dynamic played into Gray's 2010 win, when a large proportion of white voters sided with Fenty and African American voters with Gray.
That racial gap also plays into who believes Thompson over Gray. African American voters are evenly split at 35 percent for Gray and 32 percent for Thompson, while 69 percent of white voters believe Thompson. The WAMU/NBC4/Marist poll found that white voters were more likely to cite ethics as an important issue in the mayoral race.
On Thursday Gray was endorsed by Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who called Gray a "man of integrity" and urged white voters to reconsider their opposition to him.
“I think it’s up to white people to be more open-minded. Blacks are more open-minded than they are," he said.
On NewsTalk on Thursday, though, Gray said that he didn't understand why such a racial gap persisted.
"Everybody has to make their own decision about how they vote. I look at my record over the last three years... it's fulfilling the promises that we made. When you see patterns that are racially shaped... it does make you wonder, 'Why do people do that?'" he said.
Bowser's support is more evenly spread across racial groups: 26 percent from African American voters, 32 percent from white voters and 15 percent from Hispanic voters. She has made a play for African American voters in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, opening a campaign office there and winning the Ward 8 straw poll in January.
Through Thursday afternoon 988 residents had voted early, and on Saturday, March 22 early voting expands to 13 sites around the city.