In D.C. mayor poll, Muriel Bowser surges against wounded incumbent Vincent Gray

Do voters really care about accusations of corruption against D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's? New polling data show how scandal is impacting the race. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

A once unruly mayoral primary race in the District has narrowed into a two-person contest between incumbent Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, who are in a dead heat for the Democratic nomination, according to a Washington Post poll.

Bowser (Ward 4) has the support of 30 percent of likely primary voters in the poll, more than doubling the number since the previous Post survey, in early January. Gray’s support is unchanged at 27 percent, holding steady but showing no growth in the wake of new corruption allegations from federal prosecutors.

The new polling indicates that in a field of eight candidates, Bowser is now best positioned to capi­tal­ize on concerns about Gray’s honesty. Her surge offers more evidence that the electorate makes little connection between the city’s chief executive and its economic boom. By a 2-to-1 ratio, registered voters see the city as on the right track, according to the poll.

If the voters favor Bowser, they will be ousting a one-term mayor for the second election in a row.

“It’s my opinion that the city has evolved so much in the last 20 years, our success is not dictated on who the mayor is,” said Jerry Crute, 46, a Capitol Hill resident. “I believe, quite frankly, that most of the candidates would do an excellent job.”

Gray and Bowser battle for D.C. Democratic primary

But Crute, who works in accounting and finance, said that the federal investigation has disqualified Gray and that he is now choosing between Bowser and another Democratic council member, Tommy Wells (Ward 6).

Walking into the voting booth, he said, “will be a true gut-check moment: Who do I truly believe can beat Gray? That will pretty much be it.”

Gray retains path to victory

Gray, however, retains a path to victory, albeit a narrowing one, according to the poll.

A core group remains determined to turn out for him — unlike Bowser’s supporters, who appear to be a more persuadable and less certain slice of the electorate.

And there are signs that fewer voters than usual will turn out for next Tuesday’s primary election, which could benefit Gray and his relatively dedicated voter base. Fifty-four percent of registered Democrats surveyed said they are certain to vote, about 10 points less than in three most recent primaries. The poll classified just 36 percent as likely voters in the current contest.

The poll also found that since January, public opinion has continued to turn against Gray. The results came two weeks after prosecutors leveled new accusations that Gray knew about an illegal, off-the-books effort to elect him mayor in 2010.

About six in 10 likely Democratic primary voters believe the allegations aired in federal court this month by businessman and campaign financier Jeffrey E. Thompson, according to the poll. And three-quarters of those polled say Gray has been investigated fairly.

The mayor’s job approval rating — 53 percent positive to 39 percent negative among all registered voters in January — is now evenly split, matching then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s numbers before his loss to Gray in the Democratic primary four years ago. In addition, the latest poll found a slight increase in likely primary voters who cite ethics as their top issue, and more than six in 10 say Gray is not “honest and trustworthy.” Nearly half say the scandal will be a major factor in their vote, and more than a third say Gray had done something illegal.

Two-thirds of likely voters who identify themselves as Gray supporters definitely intend to vote for him in the primary, according to the poll. Bower’s supporters express less certainty. In many cases, they only recently turned their attention to her, and only 44 percent say their support is definite.

Marvin Lee Battle Sr., 75, a Congress Heights resident and retired postal worker, said he is determined to vote for Gray and will urge members of his family to join him. He cited the federal investigation into the embattled mayor’s 2010 campaign as one reason for his strong support.

“If you’ve been in D.C. for a while, you know what happened to Marion Barry,” said Battle, referring to the former mayor’s 1990 prosecution on drug charges. “They’re doing the same thing to Gray. I’m really not supporting Gray so much as I disagree with what the government is doing.”

He added, “They’ve been investigating this man for three years, and all of a sudden, come election time, they come with out all this? . . . It’s not fair.”

That sentiment appears more common in parts of the city where Gray’s support is strongest, notably his home turf, Ward 7.

Bowser has room to grow

If Gray prevails, his political future will by no means be assured. Most years, winning the primary in heavily Democratic Washington is tantamount to winning the mayoralty. But this month, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) launched an independent mayoral campaign to challenge the Democratic nominee in the fall general election.

As was true in January, Gray continues to run even with Catania, at 41 percent apiece among all registered voters surveyed, potentially setting up the city’s most competitive general election ever for mayor.

But if Bowser prevails, Catania could experience a reversal of fortune. Bowser leads Catania by more than 30 percentage points — 56 percent to 23 percent, suggesting that Democrats will be much less willing to vote against their party’s nominee if the nominee isn’t Gray.

Still, some Democrats, such as Bill Bortz, 69, a federal retiree living in Adams Morgan, said they’d be willing to give Catania, a former Republican, a chance. “I’m comforted by this idea that I’ll get another shot at the apple later,” Bortz said. “If I have regrets or hear something about Bowser that makes me unhappy, I’ll vote for David Catania.”

The poll indicates that Bowser has room to grow. Asked to identify a second choice in the Democratic primary, 22 percent of likely voters pick Bowser; only 7 percent choose Gray. And nearly half (48 percent) of likely voters say there is a chance they could change their minds — far more uncertainty than four years ago at an earlier stage. Among those who say they could change their minds, more identify Bowser as their second choice (24 percent) than Gray (10 percent).

Much of Bowser’s new support appears to come from voters who were previously undecided and from previous supporters of council member Jack Evans (Ward 2), who has lost more ground since January than any other candidate, according to the poll.

Bowser has gained more support among likely white primary voters (22 percentage points from January) than among likely black voters (12 points). She has joined Wells as a favorite among white voters and is running a strong second to Gray among African Americans. Gray leads Bowser 40 to 27 percent among black voters; Wells and Evans stand at 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

And Bowser is the biggest beneficiary of the split among black voters when it comes to Gray’s honesty. Among the 41 percent of black primary voters who see Gray as honest, he is winning about three-quarters of the vote, the poll found. Bowser is winning nearly half of those who do not.

Yari Lorenzo, 39, a Takoma mother of two, said she is most attracted to an outsider candidate, restaurateur Andy Shallal, and would vote for him if Gray weren’t on the ballot. “But I’m voting for Muriel Bowser,” Lorenzo said, explaining that she felt Bowser had the better chance to unseat Gray. “It sounds awful, but it comes down to that.”

Stephanie Ortoleva, a Dupont Circle lawyer, said she is not inclined to support Gray, citing his handling of the investigation as well as stances that she said were “too pro-business.”

She said she was impressed by Wells’s record and platform but “ultimately decided for strategic reasons” to back Bowser.

None of Gray’s six other primary challengers have seen their support grow appreciably, according to the poll.

Wells showed a slight but statistically insignificant uptick, from 12 percent to 14 percent among likely primary voters. A campaign message that emphasizes ethics and good government has not translated into broad support beyond voters focused on those issues.

Support for Evans slipped from 13 percent to 6 percent, putting him in a dead heat for fourth place with Shallal, a first-time candidate. No other candidate showed support above 3 percent.

Evans may have been harmed by his refusal to take a hard line on the corruption allegations facing Gray: In January, 17 percent of likely primary voters who doubted Gray’s honesty backed Evans. In the meantime, as Evans repeatedly praised Gray’s leadership at forums and other public appearances, and declined to make an issue of the investigation, that number declined to 9 percent. Likely primary voters who said the investigation is a major factor in their choice were no more likely to back Evans than Gray.

The Post survey reached 1,402 D.C. adults between March 20 and 23 on both land-line and mobile telephones. Of those, 863 are registered Democratic voters and 391 are likely voters in the April 1 primary. The margin of error for the former group is 4.5 percentage points; for the latter group, it is 6.5 points.

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.
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