There are just over six weeks — 44 days — until Boston voters choose the candidates who will face off against each other in the November final for mayor. It’s an extraordinary winnowing of the field, going from 12 to two, and made even more extraordinary because the real campaign — that is, the time when voters start to pay attention — won’t begin until the summer doldrums are over and Labor Day has passed. In that short sprint, from Sept. 3 to 24, the race will likely be made and remade several times. Things are fluid, and predicting the outcome is foolhardy.
The fluidity of this race is partly from the size of the field itself and the unique nature of a preliminary election. To make it to the final, two candidates only need to get more votes than all the others. Thus, in theory, 10 of the twelve candidates could each get 8.2 percent, but would lose to two who got 9 percent each.
A recent poll, conducted in mid-July by Suffolk University and the Boston Herald, underscored the point. In first place was John Connolly, the city councilor who was running even before incumbent Tom Menino said he’d forgo a sixth term. First place sounds impressive, but that only means Connolly has 12 percent. In sixth place was Charlotte Golar Richie, once head of the city’s department of neighborhood development. She got 5 percent — a difference between her and Connolly of only 7. With a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points and a strikingly high 40 percent of all voters saying they are undecided, that difference is essentially meaningless.
Complicating things further is the somewhat old-school assumption that voters make decisions based on factors such as neighborhood allegiance, ethnicity, race, or gender. That assumption itself is open to dispute, but, if true, it matters who shows up at the polls. Boston has changed enormously since the last open mayoral election in 1993, and trying to forecast turnout based on 20-year-old data is difficult. There are certain stereotypes — some neighborhoods vote more faithfully than others, Irish- and Italian-Americans vote more heavily than African-Americans or those under age 30 — but no one knows how valid any of these are. The Suffolk-Herald poll, for example, projected that 64 percent of the electorate would be white. Given that Boston’s population is only 47 percent white, that assumes far less turnout by the city’s minorities, thereby hurting nonwhite candidates. Maybe. Maybe not.
Moreover, the entire point of the ground campaigns the candidates are putting together is to identify voters sympathetic to them and get them to the polls. Such get-out-the-vote efforts are generally thought to be able to move results by a few percentage points. In a crowded field, that might be enough.
All of which is why one can construct credible cases for nine of the 12 candidates making it to the final. (I exclude the underfunded or moribund campaigns of radio station operator Charles Clemons, largely unknown Republican David Wyatt, and city councilor Charles Yancey). Right now, state Representative Marty Walsh is garnering the most attention. He represents voter-rich Dorchester and, as onetime head of the Building Trades council, has won a string of labor endorsements. Moreover, Walsh — a recovering alcoholic — has an inspiring personal story and his politics are not easy to pigeonhole. Many in the gay community are solidly in his camp, for instance.
After Walsh, two other candidates loom large: Dan Conley, the district attorney who has been running television ads nonstop, and Connolly, who has made education reform his mantra. Strong arguments can be made too for Golar Richie, the only woman in the race, and Rob Consalvo, the city councilor from Menino’s home neighborhood of Hyde Park. And city councilors Felix Arroyo and Michael Ross are running good campaigns, as are activist John Barros and businessman Bill Walczak.
The fortunes of any of these nine will likely rise and fall in the weeks ahead, meaning the race is wide open. That’s a welcome change of pace. After a number of lifeless elections with few choices (such as the recent Markey-Gomez Senate race), it’s refreshing to see democracy back in action.