Is Marion Barry the District’s most popular elected official?
That’s what ABC News claimed in a Wednesday blog post, and it is indeed one way to read the results of the Post’s recent D.C. poll.
We asked city residents whether they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of 10 local political figures. Among sitting local officials, Barry had the highest percentage of favorable perceptions — 52 percent among all residents. That’s well above Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 34 percent favorable rating.
But there are a few caveats.
• Two other figures we tested had higher favorability ratings. Fifty-seven percent of residents have a favorable impression of former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and 72 percent think favorably of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). Moreover, The Post only tested Gray and six of the D.C. Council’s 12 sitting members.
• Barry was the best-known figure we sampled. That’s not terribly unusual for someone who’s been deeply involved in city politics for more than 40 years. Only 8 percent of respondents had no opinion of him — only Gray (10 percent) and Fenty (12 percent) were even in the ballpark.
• Barry’s unfavorability — 40 percent — is among the highest we found. For every other D.C. Council member we tested, their favorables outweighed their unfavorables by two-to-one or better. Only Gray, at 56 percent, has a larger proportion of residents having an unfavorable impression of him. Another headline for the ABC item might have been “Barry Is D.C.’s Second Most Unpopular Elected Official.”
• These are measures of city residents’ general impressions. They’re not a measure of whether they approve of Barry’s job or whether they would vote for him in a race for a particular office.
The picture painted by the numbers is not an unfamiliar one: Barry is a polarizing figure. Some people love him, some people hate him — and, notably, most people either really love him or really hate him: About one-third of the population each either is “strongly” favorable or unfavorable. The remaining third either has no opinion or feels only “somewhat” favorable or unfavorable about him.
As you might expect, the results break down most clearly along racial lines: African Americans have a 81 percent favorable impression of him — 56 percent strongly favorable — while whites are 7 percent favorable. Looking at unfavorability, whites are 85 percent unfavorable — 72 percent strongly — while blacks are 13 percent unfavorable.
What’s perhaps more notable is Barry’s favorability over time. The Post has tested his favorability numbers going back decades; he saw similar levels of favorability early in his fourth and final mayoral term, but the numbers slipped as the federal control board gained greater power over city government. By the time he left, his favorability was in the low 40s.
But since leaving the mayoralty, his numbers have gradually improved to where they stand today. Politicians’ reputations often improve in hindsight — witness Fenty’s recent ratings — and Barry’s current numbers are very close to those we saw the last time we tested, in January 2008. That indicates his most recent controversies — over his contracting and earmarking practices and his comments on Asian shop owners — haven’t had a huge impact on city residents’ impressions of him.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this post.