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Strategists find mayor’s race too hard to predict

Strategists working with candidates in Boston’s crowded mayor’s race profess unusual levels of uncertainty about the outcome of the Sept. 24 preliminary election, saying that a historic collision of factors has made this contest much more difficult to predict.

They chalk it up, in part, to the time lapse since the last truly competitive mayoral election here, in 1993, and the fact that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has so thoroughly dominated the political landscape here during that era.

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Equally momentous is the city’s evolution into a majority minority population in which communities of color have grown increasingly politically active, particularly in the past decade.

And there is the race’s large and diverse field, with 12 candidates of various ethnicities from across the city claiming a broad array of natural constituencies, while striving to tap other pools of support.

These and other dynamics leave even usually confident analysts of the local political scene confessing to being relatively clueless about how many citizens will vote Sept. 24, let alone whom they will favor.

“Turnout is really hard to predict, because we just haven’t had this type of race in arguably 30 years, and certainly at least 20 years,” said Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, who has been at or near the top of most public polls.

Before Menino, then acting mayor, won his first full term in 1993, it had been 10 years since an open race, won in 1983 by Raymond L. Flynn.

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Private campaign estimates about the volume of preliminary election voters range broadly. Some campaigns are operating on assumptions of as few as 100,000 voters, which would be well above the 2009 preliminary and approach the 2009 final election, or as many as 165,000 voters. Other campaigns call 150,000 far too lofty a target, despite the fact that it is 100,000 votes fewer than Bostonians cast in last year’s presidential election and just a little higher than 2010 state-election levels.

“This is more an art form than a science,” said Allan Stern, a former Flynn pollster who is advising Councilor Michael P. Ross’s campaign. “There’s not a lot of good models for what turnout might be. You’ve had very high state election turnouts, and very low municipal election turnouts. It’s sort of tricky to navigate your way through this.”

Particularly nettlesome is how to create a reliable turnout model, the forecast campaigns use to say how many voters will go to the polls and who they will be. The 2009 race, when Menino fended off a challenge from Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty, is not seen as a reliable indicator because of the race’s comparatively low wattage. Nor are higher-profile campaigns, such as recent presidential elections, because they draw voters who traditionally are not inclined to vote in municipal campaigns.

And so campaign strategists are left to cast about for telling data that would help them answer persistent questions that have largely defined the race.

Will voters of color, drawn by three prominent mayoral candidates of color — Felix G. Arroyo, John F. Barros, and Charlotte Golar Richie — surge and continue mounting their steadily building share of the electorate? With three contenders with Irish surnames consistently at or near the top of public polling — Daniel F. Conley, Connolly, and Martin J. Walsh — will the once-dominant Irish wards come out in force to reestablish the Hibernian grip on the mayoralty, ended by Menino in 1993?

And just how interested are casual voters in a municipal election, particularly after the relative stability of the Menino years? Maybe the city’s famously atuned political nervous system has grown complacent.

The unpredictability of the preliminary election has influenced campaign strategy, say strategists for a number of campaigns.

Councilor Rob Consalvo’s campaign theory holds that he has a loyal base and that if a concerted ground game can drive them to vote, then Consalvo will fare well.

Golar Richie, a former state representative and the only woman in the race, said her campaign is focused on encouraging women and residents of her old district, with parts of Dorchester and of Roxbury, to vote.

She said her campaign is eyeing a total voter universe of between 120,000 and 125,000.

“That would be pretty good for us,” she said. “We know where our base of support is, and we need to go after it.”

Ratcheting voter totals above that rough benchmark is a pillar in the election strategy of several campaigns, which are relying on voters unaccustomed to voting in municipal elections to rally to their flags.

Barros, an executive at a nonprofit, said the unpredictability of the electorate has not changed his message, but has helped him define the direction of his campaign. The bigger the electorate, Barros said, the better his odds.

“What we are doing, and the way you win, is you push for more votes to come out, create a bigger pie,” said Barros campaign manager Matt Patton.

Golar Richie’s campaign strategist, James McGee, said that voter interest has been slow to build this year.

If it does grow, fueled by the recent television ads and potentially cresting around election day, it would be another X factor with which campaigns will need to grapple.

“That ramped-up level of intensity that one would expect has been late to click in,” said McGee. “It has started recently, but we’re inside two weeks, so the question for everyone’s turnout model is just how heightened the intensity is going to be in these last two weeks.”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.

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