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Less than a month before the primary, Philadelphians are about to get their first public opinion poll on the mayoral election.
Good government group Committee of Seventy is partnering with community nonprofit Urban Affairs Coalition, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, electoral reform advocacy group FairVote, and local news outlet The Philadelphia Citizen to run the poll, which will survey 1,000 likely voters and be independent of any candidate. Results are promised by April 28.
What’s the benefit? A poll could help voters make a strategic decision about where to place their support — perhaps backing a No. 2 choice if they think it’ll stop someone else from winning..
Philly usually sees low turnout in off-year primaries. With many viable mayoral candidates, the race could hinge on fewer than 10,000 votes, to decide the next leader for a city of 1.6 million.
“The absence of polling has made it harder for Philadelphians to make informed decisions about whom to support in the mayor’s race,” said Lauren Cristella, Committee of Seventy’s interim president and chief operating officer, in a press release. “We want every eligible voter to vote, to be informed when they vote, and to vote with confidence.”
Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Polls can sway elections, and have been criticized in recent years for focusing voters on the “horse race” instead of policy proposals and platforms.
Mayoral candidates have participated in two televised debates and literally dozens of forums. There’s also been a major poll on what issues Philadelphians think are most important, robust reporting on candidates’ backers and donors, a lawsuit over alleged campaign finance violations, and, of course, plenty of political advertising on TV and direct mail.
But not everyone has been paying attention, either for lack of time, lack of interest, or because it just hasn’t crossed their radar.
“I would be wary of releasing any results before Election Day because what I really would want to avoid is a situation where I influenced the race,” Penn political science professor Daniel Hopkins told Billy Penn.
More public information isn’t a bad thing, Hopkins said, but he thinks pollsters should be cautious when their work could considerably influence an election.
It’s human nature to want to back winners, and a poll showing a certain candidate in the lead might draw more support to them or discourage supporters of other candidates from voting, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Between highly attentive campaign watchers trying to pick a winner and other voters just tuning into the race, there’s reason to believe undecided voters are still in a position to decide the coming primary’s winner.
“In some elections,” Hopkins noted, “you can see up to about a quarter of people saying, ‘I decided in the last week.’”
Who responds to polls?
Hopkins’s reservations also have to do with the challenges of polling, based on who tends to respond to polls in the first place — namely, more educated voters.
He also said he wouldn’t publish what’s essentially a snapshot of voter support without additional context on how Philadelphians felt earlier in the cycle.
When might’ve been a good time for a first poll to have gone out?
“I’m a big believer in waiting until after petitions are filed,” said Lauren Vidas, elections lawyer and governmental relations pro. ”I think that’s the point where people start becoming a little more aware of the municipal race.”
Independent opinion polls are a hallmark of state and national campaigns. But they haven’t played a particularly important role in recent Philly Democratic primaries.
The last real contested mayoral race was in 2015, when then-Councilmember Jim Kenney and state Sen. Anthony Williams were by far the biggest fundraisers out of a five candidate field.
“I’m not sure if there was an independent poll that year, but I would also suggest that it was probably not as mission critical,” said Vidas, the elections lawyer. “There were clearly two frontrunners and everyone else trailing wildly behind.”
There’s been a movement in U.S. cities to implement ranked-choice voting instead of a winner-take-all election. Because it takes into account voters’ second and third favorite choices, advocates say, it can better reflect a candidate’s true popularity.
Pennsylvania law currently doesn’t allow ranked-choice voting, but Committee of Seventy’s poll will be conducted that way, as an experiment. There will also be a public internet poll on the group’s website, with results released separately.