As D.C. mayoral hopefuls wrap up campaigning, early turnout numbers are low

Despite predictions that more District residents would vote early for mayor, the opposite has turned out to be true — a sign of potentially historic low turnout and a reason for new uncertainty in Tuesday’s already fluid Democratic primary.

Just over 14,000 voters cast ballots during a two-week early voting period that ended Saturday evening. Four years ago, more than 22,000 voted before primary day, and the precipitous drop occurred despite several additional early voting locations opening this year.

Candidates readily blamed a new campaign schedule — previous mayoral primaries have come in early September — and a spate of bad campaign-season weather that included frigid temperatures, snowfall that affected two days of early voting, and, on Saturday and Sunday, drenching rainfall that dampened candidates’ last-minute efforts to connect with voters.

The weekend of campaigning capped a race in which an eight-person field has recently narrowed to two leading candidates, with polls showing incumbent Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser in a statistical tie.

An ongoing federal investigation into his last campaign has impeded Gray’s efforts to take credit for a booming economy amid ambivalent feelings about the city’s direction and what role a mayor should play in guiding it. But just two days ahead of the primary, ambivalence about the other candidates was high, too.

“We are faced with a field of candidates that almost make making a decision a mockery, and nearly an act of futility,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, the politically active senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast, who contributed $100 to Gray as recently as last week. From the pulpit, Hagler all but urged his congregation not to vote, saying no candidate was worthy of support.

That perspective, coupled with the dismal early voting numbers, increased urgency among the candidates to turn out supporters on Tuesday. The weather gave the weekend’s campaigning a desultory feel.

Gray took a languid caravan ride through Ward 7 on Saturday, then stumped from the pulpit of an African American church in Ward 8 on Sunday, trying to perk up his most devoted supporters.

Bowser (D-Ward 4) stood with her hair tucked under a drenched baseball cap and her heels sunk two inches into mud outside a Northeast polling place Saturday, appealing to the trickle of voters there.

“Where is everybody?” Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) asked three campaign workers tucked under umbrellas as he tried to revive his flagging campaign near Logan Circle on Sunday. “You’d think everyone would be home on a day like today.”

On one block of 10th Street NW, only 32-year-old Augie Ripa opened his door. “I appreciate the effort,” he told Evans.

Weather, other factors

The forecast for election day appears milder — partly sunny with highs in the 60s, according to the Capital Weather Gang — but beyond the rain, other forces were complicating turnout in the final days.

A Washington Post poll showed a notable erosion in voter determination to get to the polls. In surveys taken ahead of the previous three mayoral primaries, about two-thirds of registered Democrats said they were certain to vote. This year, only 54 percent said they would definitely do so.

Bowser has been banking on at least as many voters casting ballots on Tuesday as did four years ago; her strongest support comes from booming areas of the city expected to show growth among early voters from four years ago.

A low-turnout election could give Gray an advantage, with polls showing a core group of supporters determined to vote for him. But the geographically lopsided turnout among early voters — only about 11 percent of early votes were cast in polling places east of the Anacostia River, an area targeted by Gray’s campaign — makes his election day get-out-the-vote operation even more crucial.

The sitting mayor plied those east-of-the-river neighborhoods Saturday. His day started at the unveiling of the new Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Fort Dupont Park, where he hobnobbed with Nationals owner Theodore N. Lerner and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer before cutting the ribbon on the $17 million facility.

Few undecided D.C. voters were in attendance, and Gray lingered for nearly two hours to chitchat with officials and reporters while supporters waited for him a few miles away to kick off caravans through the city.

As his six-car motorcade drifted through Ward 7, Gray stopped to greet tenant leaders at the Stoddert Terrace and Lincoln Heights public housing developments — and for an impromptu blessing from a street minister.

The caravan later repaired to a Denny’s, where Gray stayed for two hours, greeting diners and campaign workers who filtered in and out. He spent much of the time sitting at a table with former mayor and current Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who held forth on campaign strategy.

“My advice is very simple,” he said. “Go to your base.”

The thickening rain forced the cancellation of opening-day ceremonies for the Capitol City Little League, where Bowser had planned to throw out the first pitch. She instead spent most of the afternoon awash in deepening puddles outside the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center.

One voter she won over was Sara McLean, who pressed Bowser in a hushed one-on-one conversation about whether if elected, she would keep Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

McLean, who was taking her 7-year-old swimming at the rec center, said she’d been comforted by Bowser’s answer: “I had been thinking I would vote for Jack Evans because he was the only one who had committed to keeping the chancellor . . . but she made me feel good.”

Seeking votes in the pews

On Sunday, most candidates hit the church circuit. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) visited a Baptist congregation in the Trinidad neighborhoodbefore attending his home Episcopal church on Capitol Hill.

At Our Lady Queen of Peace, a Catholic church in Ward 8, Bowser sat in the sixth row and was acknowledged by the pastor as the visitor you might “know from the newspapers.” She crisscrossed the sanctuary to greet congregants during the service, and afterward she traveled to an IHOP on Alabama Avenue SE.

Gray sat in the front row at Allen Chapel AME Church, on the border of Wards 7 and 8 and a few blocks from where, earlier this month, he broke ground on a $220 million redevelopment project.

The Skyland Town Center project figured into a 12-minute speech Gray delivered to the congregation, along with his efforts to improve schools, create jobs and exempt the city from the federal shutdown last fall.

“ ‘We’re not shutting down anything,’ ” he recalled telling federal officials.

Pastor Michael E. Bell blessed Gray and reminded his congregants to vote Tuesday. “I ain’t seen the fire in the mayor like that in a long time,” he said.

Later, Bell offered a prayer: “There’s one who is going to guarantee that when it’s all over, you’re coming out on top,” he said. “Everybody needs victory this week. God says, I’m going to give you victory this week.”

Gray smiled and gave a thumbs-up.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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