With just over a week until election day, Boston voters remain flummoxed by the crowded mayoral race, with City Councilor John R. Connolly holding a slight edge in a field so tightly bunched and volatile that as many as nine candidates have a plausible shot at the final, a Globe poll shows.
Connolly, who registered 13 percent in the survey, is a few points ahead of a tight cluster of candidates that includes former city housing chief Charlotte Golar Richie, who polled just ahead of state Representative Martin J. Walsh and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.
The field is so closely clustered that nine candidates fell within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points, giving many campaigns a shot at becoming one of the two top vote-getters who advance to the decisive final election. That includes political newcomers John F. Barros and Bill Walczak, along with City Councilors Rob Consalvo, Felix G. Arroyo, and Michael P. Ross.
The poll found a splintered and unengaged electorate that is largely unfamiliar with the candidates in Boston’s first open race for mayor in a generation. With so many undecided voters, none of the 12 candidates has been able to emerge as a commanding leader in the first stage of the race, which culminates with the preliminary election Sept. 24.
“This race is really up in the air,” said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll of 411 likely voters from Sept. 5 through Thursday. “Nobody is out of the hunt. Almost everybody has a chance of winning this thing.”
The poll offers proof that no candidate has caught fire in this crowded field. There has been no memorable turning point, no oft-repeated quote or frequently played clip, not even a commercial that has seemed to sway voters.
The results underscored the belief of political observers that the race will come down to a house-by-house fight over friends and neighbors. Campaigns estimate that 20,000 to 25,000 votes could be enough to win a spot in the final.
As evidence of just how fluid the race remains, Smith pointed to the apparently shifting fortunes of candidates during the time his pollsters were doing their work — changes that sometimes tracked positive and negative news coverage. During the first four days of polling, Golar Richie was the choice of 14 percent of respondents; in the second four days, she’d fallen to 5 percent of those polled during that period.
Consalvo fell from 7 percent in the first half of polling to 4 percent during the second half. But Barros surged in the second half, from 3 percent to 9 percent. Ross jumped from 4 percent to 7 percent. And Connolly increased from 12 percent to almost 17 percent.
“The race is so fluid that somebody could go from 4 or 5 percent to maybe coming in second place,” Smith said.
This wasn’t, the pollster stressed, a sign of a rapid rise or decline as much as it indicates a volatile electorate just getting acquainted with a group of mostly little-known candidates.
The survey found that only one-fourth of likely voters had definitely settled on a candidate. The sheer volume of choices has proven daunting, Smith said, and discouraged voters from engaging in the race. The poll found that Connolly was the most recognizable candidate in the field and yet still was unknown to 32 percent of respondents. Six candidates were so little known that more than half of respondents could not form an opinion.
“It’s hard to get your head around so many candidates,” said Zak Mertz, a 24-year-old educator at New England Wildlife Center who lives in Brighton and remains undecided. “It’s especially hard after having such a well-known mayor in place for so long.”
Mayor Thomas M. Menino has held office for 20 years and dominated the city’s political scene, leaving little room for potential successors to gain notice. Polls have repeatedly found that more than half of Boston’s residents have met Menino personally, a testament to his governing style and penchant for ribbon cuttings.
Since Menino announced in late March he would not seek a sixth term, candidates have crisscrossed the city to introduce themselves to voters. More than half of those polled said they had met at least one candidate running for mayor.
Connolly initially challenged Menino and launched his bid in February, giving him an early start that seems to have paid dividends. The poll found that 28 percent of likely voters had met Connolly, the highest of any candidate. Conley has been district attorney for more than a decade, and he had met the second highest number of likely voters, followed by Arroyo, an at-large city councilor.
Connolly also had the highest favorability rating, with a relatively small percentage who said they would not vote for him. Support for the at-large city councilor was relatively broad, cutting across age, gender, ethnic, income, and neighborhood lines. Connolly’s slight lead jumped to 15 percent — five points ahead of the next cluster of candidates — when likely voters who are undecided were asked whom they are leaning toward.
“I think John Connolly is above and beyond the best candidate,” said Jim Henry, a 55-year-old teacher from West Roxbury who participated in the poll. “His main platform is on education and improving the schools of Boston. I support that 100 percent.”
The survey found Golar Richie with 9 percent of support, slightly ahead of Walsh and Conley, who each had 8 percent. Golar Richie’s lead was statistically insignificant, although it marked her best showing in a public poll.
They are trailed narrowly by Consalvo (with 6 percent); Barros, Arroyo, and Ross (each with 5 percent); Walczak (4 percent); City Councilor Charles C. Yancey (2 percent); Charles L. Clemons Jr. (1 percent); and David James Wyatt (below 1 percent).
“I’m going to vote for Charlotte Golar Richie,” said Lisa Green, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in the North End. “I like her range of experience. She’s taken positions on women’s issues and education that I agree with.”
But Green is worried Golar Richie’s campaign is not getting her in front of enough voters. On two occasions, Golar Richie gave speeches in the North End, and Green said she would have attended but was not aware of the events. In contrast, Green said she is inundated by information about Connolly, who has strong support in her social circle among young families in the North End, Charlestown, and downtown.
“He’s everywhere,” said Green, who doesn’t think Connolly is ready to be mayor. “He’s like taking your groceries out of the supermarket. He’s everywhere. I’ve seen him at least three times. I’ve seen [Golar Richie] once, but I really had to” seek her out.
Conley is a Democrat but did particularly well among voters who identified themselves as Republicans. He is relatively well known across Boston but drew his largest share of support from the southwest corner of the city, which includes his home neighborhood of West Roxbury. One supporter is Paul Mishkin, an attorney who has gotten a glimpse of Conley’s management style through his interactions with the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.
“I’m very impressed with the caliber of people he has working for him,” said Mishkin, a 65-year-old who lives in Brighton and also found a substantive discussion of issues on Conley’s campaign website.
The poll found that Walsh, the nine-term legislator from Dorchester, is not quite as well known as Connolly and Conley. Walsh is also a Democrat but did well among people who identified as independents.
“He’s got a good union background,” said Jack Gallahue, a 60-year-old retiree who lives in Neponset and considered Consalvo before settling on Walsh. “With that casino coming to Suffolk Downs, it’s going to be important for labor to have a strong voice.”
City Councilor Charles C. Yancey is the only candidate who is running for mayor and reelection to the City Council. Four other councilors gave up their seats to run for mayor. Yancey is relatively well known, according to the poll, but also had the largest share of people who had an unfavorable opinion of him. Yancey registered the highest percentage of respondents who said they would not vote for him.
The poll found the most important issue facing Boston is crime and violence, followed by school quality. There has been a slight improvement in the perception of Boston Public Schools in the last five years, but 56 percent of respondents rated the schools as fair to very poor. The survey found one-fourth of residents said the best way to improve city schools was to add more charter schools, followed by a return to neighborhood schools and more leeway for principals. Respondents were split on whether the Boston Teachers Union has helped or hurt public education. Nineteen percent said the union had improved schools, while 18 percent said the union hampered quality. The remaining respondents said the union made little difference or they did not know its impact.
Nearly half of Bostonians supported Suffolk Downs’s effort to develop a casino at the East Boston track, while 37 percent opposed it. But two out of three residents said they believed the entire city should be allowed to vote on the casino proposal, a view at odds with many elected officials and the majority of candidates running for mayor. State law allows the vote to be limited to East Boston or to be expanded citywide.
Public sentiment on issues is easier to pinpoint than a candidate-by-candidate matchup. Polling is particularly difficult in the race because there are so many candidates, Smith said. “What happens over the final week of the campaign, and the organizational strength of the candidates, will be deciding factors,” Smith said. “It will come down to the boots they have on the ground to motivate people to get to the polls and the amount of money they have for advertising.”