Richmond mayoral candidate Jack Berry at The Veil Brewing Co. in Scott’s Addition (Photo by Ash Daniel)
A new poll commissioned by the Richmond Association of Realtors shows Joe Morrissey still leading the seven-person race to become Richmond’s next mayor, with former Venture Richmond executive Jack Berry and Levar Stoney gaining support citywide.
Following are our five takeaways.
1) Morrissey stands pat because no one has challenged him.
For the second time in four weeks, we have confirmation that Joe Morrissey would win the mayoral election outright if it were held today. The fashionable rationalization of this fact after the Christopher Newport University poll in August was his preexisting name recognition advantage, which, the thinking went, would be nullified as his well-funded opponents ramped up their efforts. Berry and Stoney have done that. Each has extensive volunteer bases and phone-banking operations. Each has been on television for two to three weeks. People who still believe that rationalization are likely encouraged that Berry and Stoney have experienced a jump in the polls, gaining 9 and 7 points citywide, respectively.
Despite all of this, neither Berry nor Stoney has cut into Morrissey’s lead. They are simply swaying undecided voters, which accounted for a quarter of those surveyed in August, but only 11 percent in mid-September. Morrissey, meanwhile, is in an almost identical, if not a stronger, position with six weeks left until Election Day. This not only speaks to people knowing his name, but also to the reluctance of his opponents, particularly Berry and Stoney, to target him with negative ads or mailers, or challenge him in any meaningful way publicly, whether in press coverage or at events.
To quote VCU Basketball Coach Will Wade, chance favors the aggressor. There is no question which candidate has been the aggressor to this point. Unless the dynamic changes, that person will be the next mayor. Better to go down swinging than smiling. It’s time to take it to the trenches.
2) The poll's respondents are disproportionately white, which likely inflates Berry’s citywide figures.
Polls are typically subjected to a healthy dose of skepticism. The Richmond Association of Realtors commissioned this one, and it shows the candidate they endorsed, Berry, as the big mover. That will raise some eyebrows.
A less conspiratorial critique would hone in on the racial makeup of the 600 respondents: 48 percent white, 35 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic, 15 percent other/refused. If you’re thinking, "Those demographics aren’t representative of Richmond," you’re correct. Researchers reported taking over-samples in several council districts to “ensure the representation” of minority voters. Still, the breakdown seems out of whack. Consider that the three districts where Berry is strongest (1st, 2nd and 4th) account for 40 percent of the poll’s respondents. The three districts where Morrissey is strongest (6th, 8th and 9th) account for 26 percent of the poll's respondents.
A disproportionate number of white respondents likely inflates Berry’s figures. In turn, fewer black respondents probably hurts Mosby, Stoney and, yes, Morrissey.
3) Too little, too late for Stoney?
The former secretary of the commonwealth is polling higher in nearly every district citywide than he was in mid-August. His favorability rating (39 percent) is nearly as high as Berry’s, and his unfavorable rating (15 percent) is similarly low. About 2 in 5 voters now say they have no opinion of him, down from 3 of 5 in the CNU poll. His field operation and TV buys are moving the needle, but he still does not lead a single district and is effectively stonewalled by either Morrissey or Berry in seven of the nine.
According to this poll, Stoney has no path to winning outright, despite his overflowing war chest and notable endorsements. Forcing a runoff is his only play now, but that will require fighting a two-front battle against the front-runners. He seems destined to spend north of $1 million on this bid. Is it too soon to bring up Robert Grey?
4) What the heck is going on in the 5th and the 9th?
High district-level margin of error (between 13 and 16 percent) led many to question or discount the CNU poll’s findings. The Realtors poll is more precise, with a district-level margin of error between 8.5 and 12.9 percent, but still not ideal. In spite of this, most of the district findings are comparable. Morrissey is leading where he led in August. Berry is leading where he led in August.
Then there’s the 5th District. The CNU poll showed it as firmly Morrissey territory. The Realtors poll has it as a toss-up: Morrissey, 29 percent; Berry, 26 percent; Stoney, 17 percent; undecided, 12 percent. Similarly, Mosby held a small lead in the 9th District in mid-August, the CNU poll found. Now, Morrissey is winning there nearly 3 to 1. Candidates have increased their activity since Labor Day, but probably not enough to account for 30-point swings. Are small sample sizes the culprit for the fluctuation, or is something else at play?
5) Is it time for the council candidates to consider dropping out?
Former West End Councilman Bruce Tyler dropped out on Tuesday afternoon before the poll came out, which will surely stir questions of who else should withdraw to dilute the vote less. Councilman Jon Baliles and Council President Michelle Mosby find themselves trailing Morrissey and Berry in their respective home districts. Each has a smaller organization and less money with which they can make up ground on their opponents. Neither can win five of nine districts on Election Day, according to the two public polls. Should either or both of them consider dropping out?
Mosby is tricky. If the 9th isn’t as lopsided as the Realtors’ poll makes it appear (see above), Mosby dropping out would effectively gift-wrap it for Morrissey. That would make it easier for the leader to focus on campaigning in the 3rd or the 5th, thus increasing the possibility that he wins the election outright. If she drops out and vouches for Stoney south of the James, where his numbers are poor, it could increase his chances of making it to a runoff. But there’s no guarantee her share of the electorate would support Stoney over Morrissey.
Baliles’ absence, on the other hand, would theoretically benefit both Berry and Stoney, particularly in the all-important 3rd and 5th districts. Baliles is the choice of 9 percent of respondents in each district, the poll shows. Less vote splitting could be crucial to forcing a runoff scenario. Of course, this would be a hard pill to swallow. Baliles trails Stoney by only 2 points citywide and could feasibly weaken Berry. It's worth noting that this poll was conducted before a widely circulated Richmond Times-Dispatch story detailing the extent to which Berry pushed Mayor Dwight C. Jones' unpopular Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium plan. Stopping that plan is Baliles' signature accomplishment. Why step aside to make things easier for its biggest cheerleader?