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The first independent public poll in the race to be Philly’s 100th mayor confirmed one thing: It’s a nail-biter.
According to results released Friday, undecided voters led the pack in the Committee of Seventy-commissioned poll of Democratic candidates, with more than 20% of 1,500 people surveyed saying they weren’t sure who was getting their nod.
Among those who had a sure choice, there was a statistical tie — with the three women candidates in the lead.
Rebecca Rhynhart, the former city controller, came out on top with 18%. Closely following was Cherelle Parker; the former City Councilmember took 17%. Former Council colleague Helen Gym was chosen by 15% of respondents. Philadelphia has never before had a woman mayor.
Candidate Allan Domb, a real estate magnate who also served on Council, came away with 14%, while grocer Jeff Brown, the only credible candidate never to hold political office, notched 11%.
The poll had a “credibility interval” (similar to a margin of error) of 3.8%, which wipes away the difference between the leaders. With so many voters still undecided, the outcome on May 16 is far from clear.
Because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia by a margin of 6.7 to 1, whoever wins the primary is widely expected to win the general election in November.
“These results make clear what we knew all along: that every vote matters,” said Lauren Cristella, interim president and COO of the Committee of Seventy good government group, in a statement. “This poll is a snapshot in time that hopefully gives voters an additional piece of information to use when they walk into a voting booth or complete a mail-in ballot.”
Answering a survey and actually casting a vote are not the same thing, so a lot may hinge on campaigns’ efforts to mobilize their supporters.
Turnout is expected to be low. Just 27% of registered voters cast a ballot last time there was a competitive mayoral contest, when Jim Kenney was elected in 2015. Philly currently has just under 775,000 registered Dems, according to the Pa. Dept. of State.
If about a quarter turn out, and split similarly to the poll results, the winner could be decided by as few as 2,000 votes — less than 1% of the city’s 1.6 million residents.
The demographic split
When pollsters pushed undecided respondents, about 15% said they still couldn’t make up their mind — and the new choices didn’t change the order of results: Rhynhart (19%), Parker (17%), Gym (16%), Domb (15%), Brown (12%).
The poll asked people to choose between all eight Democratic candidates on the primary ballot, and the three others showed low-percentage support: Warren Bloom took 2%, while former judge Jimmy DeLeon and sitting state Rep. Amen Brown each garnered 1%.
Among various segments of the population, there were clear favorites. The Committee of Seventy poll showed the five top candidates leading in demographic blocs as follows:
- White voters (29% vs. Gym’s 24%)
- Voters with higher incomes
- People who live in Center City
- Men (21%, vs. 17% among women)
- The “youngest” voters
- Latino voters (31%, twice any other candidate)
- Black voters (25% vs. Brown’s 15%)
- People who live in Northwest Philadelphia
- Self-described conservatives and moderates
- 50- to 64-year olds
- People who’ve already voted by mail (20%)
- Self-described “very liberal” voters (40%)
- Comes in 2nd among white voters and voters with higher incomes
- Voters with high school diplomas
- People who live in Northeast Philly
- Beats Parker among self-described conservatives and moderates
- Comes in second among people who’ve already voted by mail (17%)
- Stronger showing with the “oldest” voters and conservatives
The poll was conducted by Survey USA from April 21-25 via text and phone. Responses were weighted to align with Philly’s population in gender, age, race and home ownership, as determined by the U.S. Census. You can view all the details here.
Unlikely to sway voters
Though the overall result showed a statistical tie and likely did little to clarify a clear front-runner, polls have been criticized in recent years for focusing voters on the “horse race” instead of policy proposals and platforms.
That lack of a poll had thrilled some political observers. “What I really would want to avoid is a situation where I influenced the race,” Penn political science professor Daniel Hopkins told Billy Penn. Others lamented the lack of a reliable metric that might allow people to cast their vote strategically, perhaps shifting them to a second choice candidate if they thought it would help defeat another contender.
Prior to this, the only poll numbers floating around were those commissioned by campaigns or supporting PACs, which can have intrinsic bias.
The Committee of Seventy stepped into the void, 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 produce the latest results.
“With multiple candidates within the confidence interval and a fifth of likely voters still undecided, the race is still wide open,” Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, said in a statement. “We’re excited to work with partners across the city to make sure that every eligible Philadelphian gets out and makes their voice heard in this election.”
Ranked-choice gets widespread support
The possibility of such a small percentage of voters deciding the city’s next leader has led to a lot of discussion of an alternate way of making the decision: ranked-choice voting.
Already popular around the globe, the method has gained steam recently in the U.S.; it was used in New York City’s most recent mayoral election. It allows voters to rank their preferred candidates instead of just choosing one, and aims to produce more of a consensus outcome.
It might not make a difference for this race, though. When the Committee of Seventy poll asked respondents to rank their choices, the outcome still put Rhynhart on top.
The poll did definitively pave the way for more exploration of ranked-choice voting, which is currently not legal under Pennsylvania election code. Nearly 80% of respondents said the method was “easy” or “very easy,” and more than half said they would support using it for elections in Philadelphia.