With early voting set to begin later this week, City Councilor Michelle Wu appears to hold a dominant position in the Boston mayoral race, maintaining a lead of more than 30 percentage points over Councilor Annissa Essaibi George in a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 poll of likely voters.
Not only did voters favor Wu over Essaibi George, 62 percent to 30 percent, but a majority said they supported her progressive policy proposals, such as rent control. Those who watched the first debate last week, however, did give the nod to Essaibi George, for performing unexpectedly well in their first televised face-off.
Just 7 percent of those surveyed said they remained undecided.
The results could provide more insight into the status of the race as both candidates prepare for the second of three televised debates Tuesday night, in a campaign that has started to take negative turns. The poll was conducted after last week’s debate, which featured a more assertive Essaibi George.
It was the second independent public poll in a week to show Wu with a commanding lead, with just two weeks to go until balloting ends on Nov. 2.
“It’s clear to me . . . that Michelle Wu has solidified key voting blocs that are relevant to winning in November,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the poll.
Wu enjoys greater support than Essaibi George among every racial group surveyed: white, Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters. Essaibi George fared best among white voters, winning 38 percent support of this group, but still fell short of Wu, who drew 61 percent of white voters.
Fifteen percent of Black respondents and 21 percent of Hispanic respondents said they remain undecided, illustrating one reason why both Wu and Essaibi George continue to concentrate their campaigns in those communities.
The poll also reveals what Paleologos described as a “sky high” approval rating: 71 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of Wu, compared to 49 percent who had such a view toward Essaibi George; 29 percent said they had an unfavorable view of Essaibi George. That compares to just about 18 percent of voters who said they had such a view of Wu.
That favorability rating shows Wu outstripping former mayor Martin J. Walsh (about 57 percent of voters say they view him favorably), whom she had challenged last year before he was appointed US labor secretary. That is a change from a June Suffolk/Globe poll, which found Walsh with a slightly higher approval rating (68 percent) than Wu (62 percent).
“This is really a story about Boston’s transformation from Walsh to Wu,” Paleologos said.
One bright spot for Essaibi George: A majority of respondents who watched last week’s debate said she performed better than expected, Paleologos said. That gives her an opportunity to build on that performance in the next two debates. Of the 27 percent of respondents who watched the debate, more than half said they thought Essaibi George did better than expected, including those who support Wu. Overall, respondents were more or less evenly split on which candidate won the debate.
Tom Ready, a South Boston voter who retired from the technology field, said he plans to vote for Wu but thought Essaibi George performed better in the debate than what he’s seen from her in other forums.
“I thought she did a much stronger job explaining what she thought the differences were between the candidates,” said Ready. “I honestly didn’t expect that from the councilor.”
Still, he said, the performance wasn’t enough to sway his choice, and he questioned how much time Essaibi George has to make her case now that early voting begins. Nearly 20 percent of respondents said they plan to vote early at a polling location, and another 15 percent said they would vote by mail.
“It may be too little, too late,” he said of Essaibi George’s recent performance.
But 32-year-old Matt Pelrine, who works in insurance and lives in the South End, said he remains undecided: Neither candidate has impressed him with their plans to improve city schools, and not enough has been done, he said, to address the humanitarian crisis at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic.
“It’s not like the issue on the Ave popped up overnight. What have you been doing for the past few years?” he questioned. He praised Essaibi George’s new plan to help those struggling there but panned Wu’s remarks as “empty.” He said he liked that Essaibi George was once a teacher, but he was also skeptical of her husband’s dealings in the city’s development scene, which were the subject of a Boston Globe article on Sunday.
Housing and education ranked as the top issues that would affect respondents’ vote, with 20 percent saying one of those issues was the greatest factor in deciding whom to support, while 15 percent said racism and equity issues mattered most, and 14 percent said it was the economy.
Paleologos said there were two big policy areas where Wu voters and Essaibi George voters were particularly split: police funding and rent control — two topics Essaibi George sought to highlight in last week’s debate.
Of Wu’s supporters, 65 percent said while they believe in a strong police force, the city should reallocate some funding toward mental health-related services; 15 percent said they agreed with the concept of “defunding” the police; and 12 percent called for more funding for police.
By contrast, 54 percent of Essaibi George’s supporters said police need more funding; 38 percent said resources should be redirected to mental health services; and only 3 percent supported the concept of “defunding” police.
Also, just under 60 percent of respondents said they were in favor of rent control, a controversial restriction on landlords that Wu supports. Roughly 30 percent of likely voters say they oppose rent control. Essaibi George, who objects to the concept, had pressured Wu on the policy in the debate, in what was largely seen as a highlight of her performance.
Despite the overall popularity of rent control, the poll nonetheless revealed strong differences in the candidates’ bases of support on the issue. Of Wu’s supporters, 73 percent said they support rent control, while only 27 percent of Essaibi George supporters were in favor.
The issue isn’t a clear predictor of support, however. Carlos Depina, 47, who emigrated from Cape Verde, said he supports rent control, largely because he’s seen rent increases push friends from their homes and generally make it hard for people to stay in the city. But Depina, who sees himself as an independent voter, also supports Essaibi George, largely because of her work as a teacher.
“Annissa’s good with the schools, she has a lot of experience — she’s dedicated and knows what to do,” he said, though he hopes she reconsiders her position on rent control.
Depina was also among the 33 percent of respondents who said they preferred a mayoral candidate born and raised in Boston. The question over a candidate’s roots drew criticism after Essaibi George suggested during an interview that it does have relevance. Critics said her comments were exclusionary.
Essaibi George was born and raised in Dorchester, while Wu was born in Chicago. She came here to attend college and has mostly lived here since.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents said it shouldn’t matter, but interviews suggested many voters have nuanced views on the matter.
Depina, who supports Essaibi George, said he did not think Wu should be disqualified from running for mayor, noting he was not born here either. “There are just more connections when you’re born and raised here, that’s your life, you know what’s going on,” he said.
Carla Odiaga, 64, a nurse who has lived in Boston for just over a decade, said she is leaning toward Wu because she likes her progressive politics. But Odiaga, who is Hispanic, also noted that Essaibi George, who was raised by immigrant parents, including a father from Tunisia, was born and raised in the city, and said that “her personal experiences might inform her better.”
“Boston is trying to switch from having a pretty much traditional white male leadership to something more diverse. And I think there’s a different way of thinking when you come from outside the situation,” she said. “But I think, in a way, for communities of color, they’ve already always been outsiders.”
From Friday to Sunday, live callers surveyed 500 likely voters in Boston’s municipal general election by cellphone and landline. The margin of error for the poll was plus-or-minus 4.4 percentage points.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Emma Platoff can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.