Only two candidates will survive the Sept. 14 preliminary election for mayor of Boston and the latest public poll suggests Councilor Michelle Wu and Acting Mayor Kim Janey are outpacing the pack to claim those spots.
But a second heat of contenders is still hoping to break through — and political observers say they still have the time and opportunity to do so, should one of the front-runners stumble.
Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Andrea Campbell trailed the leaders, respectively gaining the support of 14 percent and 11 percent of likely voters in a late June poll conducted by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe. Wu and Janey were each vying for the lead at roughly 22 percent.
But nearly the same share of likely voters said they were still undecided in the race. Latino voters were especially unattached, leaving a rich pool of uncommitted voters to court.
Campbell’s campaign, sensing intensity among her supporters, believes she can chart a course to victory by energizing new voters and picking off soft support for other candidates.
“We feel that energy on the ground. We have $1 million in the bank,” said Campbell’s campaign manager, Katie Prisco-Buxbaum. “Anyone who thinks we’re running behind doesn’t fundamentally understand how and when voters make their decisions.”
Likewise, Essaibi George’s team pointed to the pool of undecided voters and insisted she should not be underestimated, noting she has yet to spend money on digital ads, TV spots, or direct mailings — but is laying plans for an aggressive push.
Essaibi George is not taking any neighborhood for granted and has been focused on getting on the ground across the city as much as possible.
“Annissa’s path to victory is through Boston’s neighborhoods,” said her campaign manager, Cam Charbonnier. “She’s going to continue to be accessible and present to all residents, just as she has as a city councilor at-large.”
Campaign strategists and political observers unaffiliated with the race agree that many voters have yet to tune in and that early polls in crowded fields can be misleading. Some point to this month’s preliminary results in New York City, where the early lead of Andrew Yang evaporated by election day.
Still, overtaking the current front-runners will be a challenge. The gap between the first and second tiers in the race is wide, noted Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a political consultant from Roxbury and a Janey supporter.
“It’s really going to be an uphill climb, and it’s a weird election season,” she said. While the city is reopening from COVID-19, there still haven’t been many large-scale political rallies, she added.
As the other campaigns become more aggressive, so, too, will front-runners Wu and Janey, noted Wilnelia Rivera, a campaign consultant who is not working on the race but supports Wu.
Wu registered in the poll as the best-known mayoral candidate with the highest favorability ratings, only slightly less well known than former mayor Martin J. Walsh, who served in the office for seven years. She has successfully mounted citywide campaigns four times, and twice topped the ticket of four at-large city councilors, most recently garnering 41,664 votes.
Essaibi George has also successfully run citywide, as a councilor at large, and in the last election cycle placed second to Wu, with 34,109 votes.
Campbell, by contrast, has never run citywide. She has been elected three times in a lower-voting district based in Mattapan. And though she displaced a three-decade incumbent in her first race, she has never collected more than 8,027 votes.
Janey is also a district councilor who hasn’t even brought in 5,000 votes in either of her elections. But she gained visibility when she stepped into the role of acting mayor earlier this year. Her ascension made Janey the first Black person and woman to serve as Boston mayor and gave her the air of an incumbent; voters satisfied with her leadership to date will need to hear a persuasive argument for change.
“She has been able to take the power of incumbency to create a citywide coalition,” said Rivera.
Until recently, though, Campbell had raised more money than anyone else in the field. Like Wu and Janey, Campbell also has a super PAC working independently on her behalf. Digital and TV ads are already promoting Campbell’s candidacy.
Essaibi George does not have super PAC help as of yet, but she has gained the endorsement of numerous employee unions that could help drive voter turnout.
The biggest unknown in this contest — which could skew results for Essaibi George and Campbell — is the question of who turns out in September, said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group.
“Is it going to be a traditional municipal preliminary with an older and whiter electorate?” Koczela asked. “Or is the slate of candidates running going to mean that a whole different group of voters shows up than usually would?”
In the first scenario, where turnout is low and traditional, Essaibi George stands to benefit. Among white voters, Essaibi George ranked second in the poll only to Wu, noted David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. She also leads among the small sliver of the city’s electorate who identify as conservative, and among voters who say that crime is their most important issue.
Essaibi George has cut a more moderate path on policing than her colleagues, calling for the hiring of hundreds more officers in Boston. If street violence spikes in the city this summer, her numbers “would correspondingly go up,” Paleologos predicted.
“If you connect those dots you begin to get a picture of where her votes are based,” Paleologos said. “The challenge for her is to expand that base beyond those categories.”
Campbell could benefit if turnout is broader and more diverse than usual, a phenomenon that helped vault Ayanna Pressley to Congress in the 2018 primary. Pressley attracted supporters — particularly young voters and Latinos — who hadn’t even been identified as likely voters earlier in the summer, surprising pundits to claim the nomination.
Campbell is hoping for a similar outpouring of voters unidentified in the Suffolk/Globe poll, which tightly screened for voter engagement by including only those who could identify the month of the preliminary election.
“That kind of thing is still very possible,” Koczela said, noting all the leading candidates are people of color. Traditionally, he said, 55 percent to 60 percent of the electorate is white.
Black voters are gravitating to Janey more than Campbell, or a third Black candidate, John Barros, who drew under 2 percent of support from all voters in the poll. A sixth candidate, State Representative Jon Santiago, dropped out of the race last week.
However, Campbell registers as a strong second-choice candidate among voters who said they intend to vote for both Janey and Wu.
If Janey falters, “many of her Black voters will rotate to Campbell,” Paleologos said. If Wu falters, Campbell would also benefit, he said.
Campbell’s candidacy is directly tethered to the campaign success or failure of both Janey and Wu, according to Paleologos.
“It means if one of the front-runners falters, she’s poised to pounce,” he said.
Is that still possible, though? Ferriabough Bolling asserted that for either Janey or Wu to drop in the polls, “they would have to have a horrible fall from grace.”
“With 60 days left, I really don’t see that happening,” she said.
At this stage of the last open mayor’s race in 2013, a dozen candidates were splitting support in smaller fractions, and the leading candidates were in an even closer pack. Walsh placed second in a Suffolk University poll conducted for the Boston Herald in July 2013, one point behind former councilor John Connolly, two points ahead of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, and six points ahead of both Charlotte Golar Richie and City Councilor Rob Consalvo. Forty percent of respondents were still undecided in July.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert. Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.