City Councilor Michelle Wu and Acting Mayor Kim Janey have pulled ahead of the rest of the pack competing in Boston’s mayoral race, with less than three months before the preliminary election that will whittle the field down to two candidates, a new poll by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe found.
The poll of 500 likely Boston voters showed Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, declared a front-runner in another recent public poll, placing in a second-tier of candidates with Councilor Andrea Campbell. Meanwhile, the poll shows the four men in the race lagging further behind.
The poll also found that housing is the top issue driving voters’ decision-making, followed closely by racism and equality, and schools. It also indicated former mayor Martin J. Walsh is still viewed favorably by nearly 68 percent of voters, despite controversies that erupted after his departure, including his last-minute appointment of a police commissioner who lasted only two days on the job. His unfavorable rating was nearly 22 percent. Both his favorable and unfavorable ratings were higher than any of the candidates looking to succeed him.
Overall, 70 percent of likely voters favored one of the contest’s four women — all women of color — suggesting that none of the four men running may survive the Sept. 14 preliminary election to advance to the Nov. 2 runoff. Only white men have been elected Boston mayor since the job was created nearly 200 years ago.
“Clearly the respondents are telling us that history will be made,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the poll. “Not in November, but in September.”
Wu, 36, an at-large city councilor who has topped the ticket in two of the last four elections, emerged as the most popular and best-known candidate, leading the field with 23 percent. Yet the poll found Wu and Janey running neck-and-neck, with roughly 22 percent of likely voters backing the acting mayor, within the poll’s margin of error. Just as many voters said they remain undecided in the race.
Meanwhile, the poll found Essaibi George trailing the front-runners with 14 percent, followed by Campbell, the district councilor who represents Mattapan, at 11 percent.
As elected city councilors, each of the four leading candidates comes to the race with an established base of support in Boston, though their constituencies differ in magnitude. Like Wu, the 47-year-old Essaibi George has won citywide, while Janey, 56, and Campbell, 39, have waged narrower campaigns in individual districts of the city.
The four male candidates are struggling to gain traction, according to the poll. The survey found state Representative Jon Santiago, a 39-year-old South End Democrat and an emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center, with 5 percent, while John Barros, 47, who ran against Walsh in 2013 and became his chief of Economic Development, received only 2 percent.
Even further behind, political unknowns Robert Cappucci of East Boston and Richard Spagnuolo of the North End registered with less than 1 percent of support each. More than 30 percent of likely voters said they’d never heard of Barros or Santiago.
The poll suggests Janey has benefited from the surge of publicity she received by becoming acting mayor in March — a role she gained by virtue of her position as City Council president when Walsh became US secretary of labor. Even her temporary role brought historic significance, making her the first Black person and first woman to serve as mayor of Boston.
But she still trails in name recognition and popularity to Wu, whom 62 percent of likely voters view favorably, compared to 14 percent who view her negatively.
“I believe in what she stands for,” said Valerie Martin, a Hyde Park voter who said she is likely to back Wu.
The survey showed Wu with a competitive advantage among voters who identify as very liberal, winning support from 57 percent of them. She also dominates among Asian-American voters.
Despite Janey’s climbing name recognition as acting mayor, more than 11 percent of voters surveyed said they hadn’t heard of her. But she has a positive image, with 58 percent of voters viewing her favorably, and less than 14 percent saying they view her unfavorably.
“Stepping into that role, and watching her speak, I just thought she’s the real deal,” said Susan Ann Parker, 57, a Charlestown voter who is leaning toward supporting Janey because of her performance as acting mayor.
The survey found Janey dominating among Black voters, with 42 percent of that group backing her — a point that Paleologos said points to Black Boston voters being “comfortable with her leadership“ and showing “loyalty to what she’s already done.”
“It’s important to have a woman of color,” said Leah Daniels, 53, who is Black and lives in Janey’s district. “And I believe that she’ll honor her word and her commitment to our community.”
That’s a problem for Campbell, who is also Black, and who already rebuffed efforts by one prominent Janey supporter urging her to drop out of the race to solidify the Black vote.
Campbell’s base is not as substantial, though she leads among households with school-age children and she polls close to the front-runners in some precincts rich with voters of color, Paleologos noted. But unlike Wu and Janey, who claim substantial support beyond their base, he said, Campbell’s backing in other areas is thin.
Essaibi George, meanwhile, did not look as strong as she has in some previous polls. But as the candidate who has appeared most friendly toward police, she has established a base among those who work in public safety and conservatives. Forty-five percent of those who cited crime as their top priority backed her candidacy.
Thomas Leonard, a 33-year-old Republican from Allston-Brighton, called support for the Boston Police Department his most important issue. He said he was sold on Essaibi George when former Boston police commissioner William Gross endorsed her.
“I’m supporting Annissa because she seems to have the broadest spectrum of appeal,” said Leonard, who is white.
Essaibi George showed strong support among white voters, coming second only to Wu.
“But the poll is also telling us that a white-based candidacy may not be in the cards this time around,” said Paleologos.
The historic mayoral election is playing out against a national reckoning over racial justice and policing that has persisted since last summer’s nationwide protests over the deaths of Black men at the hands of police.
Those issues appear to be resonating among Boston voters. When asked the importance of electing a Black mayor or another person of color, 65 percent of respondents called it “very important,” or “somewhat important.” Only 34 percent called it “not very” or “not at all” important.
“I feel very strongly about putting a woman of color into office,” said Deirdre Murphy, a Dorchester voter who is white. “The city of Boston has been overrepresented by white men, and not represented by women of color, especially because of the fact that [Boston] is a majority minority city right now.”
The poll focused on likely voters and further gauged their interest by including only respondents who could identify the month of the preliminary election.
Conducted from Wednesday through Saturday, live callers surveyed respondents likely to vote in Boston’s September preliminary election by cellphone and landline, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Globe Correspondents Kate Lusignan and Jasper Goodman contributed to this report.