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Washington Post poll: D.C. Mayor Bowser’s approval rating drops amid rising concerns about crime

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at a news conference at the Marion S. Barry Jr. Building on Feb. 14. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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A majority of D.C. residents approve of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s job performance — although her popularity has dropped from previous years, with residents growing sharply more concerned about crime and the city’s direction overall as she seeks a third term leading the nation’s capital city, a Washington Post poll finds.

A 58 percent majority of residents approve of Bowser’s overall job performance — down from 67 percent in Post polls conducted in 2019 and 2017. Bowser also holds a wide advantage in the June Democratic primary, with many voters still unfamiliar with her challengers. While Bowser gets high marks from voters on her handling of the coronavirus and road safety, voters rate her negatively on other matters, particularly her efforts to reduce crime, which has surged to the forefront of voters’ concerns.

Asked to name the District’s top problem, 36 percent cite crime, violence or guns — twice as many as in a 2019 Post poll. Over the same period, the share of residents saying the city is headed in the right direction dropped from 59 percent to 49 percent.

The random sample of 904 D.C. residents who were surveyed gave mixed marks for Bowser’s leadership, including on some of her signature issues. A 72 percent majority say Bowser is doing an excellent or good job handling the coronavirus pandemic, and 58 percent rate her positively for working to improve street safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists. But more than 6 in 10 rate Bowser negatively for her performance on affordable housing and homelessness, and more than 7 in 10 give her negative marks over reducing crime.

Yet despite residents’ fears and frustrations, Bowser’s detractors have not coalesced behind an opposing candidate. With the Democratic mayoral primary four months away, 47 percent of registered Democrats say they would support Bowser if the election were held now, while 19 percent support at-large council member Robert C. White Jr. and 17 percent support Ward 8 council member Trayon White Sr.

A 61 percent majority of registered Democrats say they don’t know enough about Robert White to have a favorable or unfavorable impression, while 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Trayon White. In comparison, just 4 percent of Democrats are unfamiliar with Bowser. The primary winner is an overwhelming favorite in the general election given the city’s strong Democratic leanings.

Bowser declined to comment on the poll, and Trayon White did not respond to a request for comment. Luz Martinez, Robert White’s campaign manager and spokeswoman, said in a statement that the poll results show that Bowser’s “support is lukewarm.”

“When people meet Robert, they’re excited when they learn people are challenging her, and they invite a change and new vision,” she said. “People are saying eight years is enough … they are ready for someone who will put people over politics.”

Jacob Mullin, a White Democrat who lives in Ward 6 and who supports Bowser, said he thought the mayor has generally done a good job navigating the city through the pandemic, even though he disagreed with her decision to relax the mask mandate in November and, more recently, her choice to end the citywide vaccine mandate to enter many businesses.

Mullin, 37, called Bowser a moderate counterbalance to an increasingly left-leaning council. While he thinks she needs to be stronger in the realm of pedestrian safety, he applauded her advocacy for D.C. statehood on the national stage and said she is deserving of a third term.

Meanwhile, he said he hasn’t heard much about the policy positions of Robert White and Trayon White.

“It might be because they have the same last name; that will be a branding issue for them, for sure,” Mullin said. As for Bowser? “She’s proven she’s more than capable.”

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While Bowser is fairly popular across racial groups — including a 62 percent approval rating from White residents and a 54 percent approval rating from Black residents — the poll finds divisions by race in D.C. residents’ optimism about the city’s direction. While 60 percent of White residents say D.C. is on the right track, 54 percent of Black residents view the city as going in the wrong direction.

Geographically, residents of the city’s Northwest quadrant have the rosiest view, with a 54 percent majority saying the city is going in the right direction, while residents in the Northeast are split, 46 percent right direction to 44 percent wrong track, and those living in Southeast Washington say the city is moving in the wrong direction by a 10-point margin (48 percent to 38 percent). The survey did not interview enough residents in Southwest Washington to break out results.

Across segments of the city, more Democrats say they plan to vote for Bowser than for her opponents. Bowser holds a strong lead in Wards 2 and 3, where 61 percent of Democratic voters support her compared with 14 percent supporting Robert White and 8 percent supporting Trayon White. She is weakest in Wards 7 and 8, where 38 percent support her, 22 percent plan to vote for Robert White and 33 percent plan to vote for Trayon White. Bowser’s support is also strongest among seniors, with 66 percent of Democrats ages 65 and older saying they support her, compared with 51 percent of those ages 40-64 and 38 percent of Democrats under age 40.

Tenise Quick, a Black resident of Ward 5, feels pessimistic about the city’s direction under Bowser and plans to vote for Robert White in June. Quick, 21, said her top issue is education, an area where White has long criticized the mayor for failing to close the racial achievement gap.

Bowser receives narrowly positive ratings for improving D.C. public schools, with 48 percent saying she is doing an excellent or good job and 36 percent saying she is doing “not so good” or “poor.”

Quick, who has dyslexia, said her teachers in D.C. public schools did not have the time or resources to address her needs. She ended up finishing her education at a private school in Maryland, but she worries about young people she knows who are still in D.C. schools.

“I fell through the cracks with the plan Muriel Bowser has,” she said. Listening to Robert White, she feels he will improve the student-to-teacher ratio. “He went to D.C. public schools. He knows what needs to be done to help gauge the gap and help close it for people that might be falling behind.”

Bowser has enjoyed high approval ratings for much of her eight years as mayor. In 2017 and 2019, two-thirds of D.C. residents said they approved of the job she was doing. Today, that share has fallen to 58 percent, while the number who disapprove almost doubled, from 21 percent in 2019 to 37 percent now.

About 3 in 4 D.C. residents support vaccine rules Bowser just rescinded, poll finds

Still, she remains more popular than previous mayors who lost reelection campaigns: Vincent C. Gray had a 51 percent approval rating in January 2014, before Bowser defeated him that June, and Adrian M. Fenty had a 42 percent approval rating in January 2010, months before he lost to Gray.

Keara Mehlert, a 34-year-old Ward 6 resident who is White and Asian, said she has noticed Bowser’s major gestures, such as painting “Black Lives Matter” on the street outside the White House during the Trump administration, but she wonders whether the mayor is effective at the more quotidian aspects of her job.

“I think there’s a lot of her that’s just about image and not actual action,” said Mehlert, who plans to vote for Robert White. Mehlert’s top concern is traffic safety. “Something has to change. There’s people, kids, getting killed. As a new parent, that’s really scary for me, and as someone who walks and rides Capital Bikeshare to work. I live right at a main intersection and I see people constantly running stop signs and red lights.”

Lenwood Johnson, 62, who is Black, said he is ready for a change and is leaning toward Trayon White. “Mayor Bowser has been in for two terms. I think she’s probably run out of new ideas,” said Johnson, a Ward 8 resident.

Asked about Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who is also up for reelection, 56 percent of D.C. residents say they don’t know enough about him to have an opinion, while 27 percent are favorable and 15 percent are unfavorable.

The poll finds that more than 7 in 10 D.C. residents approve of Bowser’s handling of the pandemic. A 63 percent majority also says she has imposed the right level of restrictions on businesses and residents, while 19 percent say she hasn’t been strict enough and 16 percent say she has been too restrictive. Younger adults are somewhat more likely to say Bowser’s coronavirus restrictions have been too strict, and more than 6 in 10 Black residents rate Bowser’s management of the pandemic positively compared with more than 8 in 10 White residents.

Johnson is one who disapproves, saying that he believes Bowser’s mask mandates have been overly restrictive.

He also worries about crime — he won’t vote for Robert White, he said, because he thinks young offenders ought to face harsh punishments that the candidate opposes — and hopes Trayon White can reach disaffected young people in his neighborhood.

“I’m hoping that if he gets elected mayor, maybe he can make a connection with these youngsters who are carjacking and shooting and killing folks,” Johnson said. “Hopefully if they could see someone close in age to them, a young Black man in a leadership role like mayor, hopefully that could help to convince them not to be so much into crime.”

While more than a third of residents say crime is the biggest problem facing the city, 14 percent say the top problem is housing, the cost of housing or low-income housing, down from 23 percent who gave the same response in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic, homelessness/poverty and the economy are cited by 7 percent each, while 5 percent cite transportation-related concerns, including traffic, road quality and safety issues for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.

Kelsey Murt, a 31-year-old White Ward 4 resident who supports Bowser but plans to do more research before casting her vote, said she has been impressed by how the mayor has handled the pandemic — especially when she hears about the experiences of friends who live in other cities. Murt, who called pandemic policy her biggest factor in considering a candidate, also agreed with Bowser’s decision to roll back the vaccine mandate this week.

“I think she did it based on the fact that the case numbers have been going down” as the omicron variant surge wanes, Murt said. “I think she’s done a good job scaling up restrictions as cases go up, and scaling them back as cases go down.”

This Washington Post poll was conducted Feb. 2-14 among a random sample of 904 adult D.C. residents over landline and cellphones, including cellphones with non-202 area codes. The sample includes 579 registered Democrats with an error margin of plus or minus five percentage points; the overall margin of error is four points.

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