A poll released Tuesday by the Washington Post shows that while Mayor Vince Gray has twice as much support than his closest rival in a crowded field, more than three-quarters of registered Democratic voters are leaning toward a change. Just 24 percent say they plan to vote for Gray in the District's April 1 primary.
And though the poll suggests that more voters approve of the job Gray has done since taking office, there are still many lingering doubts about his 2010 campaign, which remains under a federal investigation. Forty-three percent of respondents say the cloud over Gray’s last campaign will by a major factor in how they vote, and of those, only 7 percent plan to stick with the mayor.
Council member Muriel Bowser is second, with 12 percent of 669 registered Democrats saying they plan to back her. But Bowser is bunched in with her colleagues Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, who both netted 11 percent, and Vincent Orange, with 9 percent. Busboys and Poets restaurateur and first-time candidate Andy Shallal is further back at 5 percent, while former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis and businessman Christian Carter are at 1 percent.
“I look at this poll and say we double the results of our nearest competitor,” says Gray’s campaign manager, Chuck Thies. “My candidate just got in the race. My candidate just had his kick-off three days ago.”
But while Thies’s candidate is in the lead, his competitors see it as a very soft advantage. “What’s surprising is that somebody who’s been in office is at 24 percent for a re-elect,” Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff, tells Washingtonian. “The city is ready for a new mayor, and 76 percent would seem to agree with us.”
The Post's poll does give Gray several good marks on the District’s overall direction. Fifty-nine percent of the 1,003 adults questioned say DC is generally going in the right direction, a major swing from the 40 percent who felt that way in July 2012. Additionally, Gray scored well on several key issues, including attracting new business (68 percent), reducing crime (55 percent), and improving municipal services (53 percent).
But Gray’s biggest liability continues to be his shaky ethical record. Just 32 percent find him to be “honest and trustworthy,” while 54 percent say the opposite. Thies says the focus on US Attorney Ron Machen’s probe into the 2010 race is being fomented by Gray’s opponents, who collectively have spent more than $2 million so far, and by media reporting on the investigation. Still, it was Gray who opened his campaign kickoff speech last Saturday with an apology for the scandal over $653,000 in unreported money being spent on his behalf, an affair that has so far led to the guilty pleas of four of Gray’s former political aides. Gray himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
“The noise in the room has obscured the accomplishments of Vince Gray,” Thies says.
For Wells, who has run the most aggressive campaign against Gray, the poll suggests he might be able to overcome a severe financial disadvantage. Wells, taking only individual donations and no corporate contributions, notes he is in a “dead heat” with Bowser and Evans, both of whom have raised more than twice as much money as he has.
“What the poll shows is the race is wide open,” Wells says.
The poll’s biggest winner, however, might be Council member David Catania, an independent who is exploring a run in the general election. Historically, Democratic primaries have served as unofficial mayoral coronations, but the Post finds that if Catania were to jump in the race, Gray would only hold a 43 to 40 percent lead.
“The campaign is young,” says Wells.