Morrissey hasn't won RVA mayor's race... yet

Local elections are hard to predict, especially in the absence of reliable polling data. That's why the RVA political class is buzzing over Christopher Newport University's new poll on the Richmond Mayor's race.

The big news: former VA Delegate Joe Morrissey's "solid" lead. Morrissey is a colorful figure in Richmond politics -- he famously won a special election for Delegate while serving a jail sentence -- but is well-known in RVA and has a core of strong support, especially among African-Americans. Morrissey's history, for good or ill, gives him important name-recognition in a crowded race. His lead in the current poll probably says less about him as a candidate and more about the failure of his opponents to break through to the electorate in a big way. Other challengers will need to step up their ground game in a big way if they want to defeat Morrissey, and they only have two months to do it.

A few other things of note from the CNU results:

  • The other big story is former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney's shockingly low numbers. Despite raising as much money as all the other candidates combined, he's polling in the single digits - not much better than longshot activist Bobby Junes. Stoney has picked up some high-profile endorsements, and will likely earn the support of the city's Democratic machinery. But as I told Richmond Magazine's Mark Robinson last month, endorsements are generally useful as signals to other elites, not voters. Elite support is good, but at some point you need voters to buy your story. It's possible that the Stoney campaign has been saving money for a big ad blitz; if so, Stoney needs to start getting his message out to voters ASAP. At this point he needs endorsements and donations less than he needs yard signs and committed supporters in each district.
  • Former Venture Richmond director Jack Berry should be encouraged by the poll results; he's probably the candidate who has come closest to "breaking through" to challenge Morrissey for voter support. (Indeed, his campaign tweeted this morning that now it was a "two-person race.") As long as no candidate wins a majority of votes in 5 of the city's 9 election districts, the top two candidates go to a runoff. If Berry takes even the #2 spot, he can take advantage of Morrissey's high unfavorables -- 44%, according to the CNU poll -- to build an anti-Joe majority. (This has always been Bruce Tyler's strategy, but his anemic poll numbers and lack of a niche suggest that he's a longshot for the #2 spot.)
  • Current City Council President Michelle Mosby is suffering from being the insider candidate in an outsider year.  According to the poll, Mosby is in a distant third at 10%. That's not so far behind Berry, but she's one of the only two candidates (with Morrissey being the other) who has a higher "unfavorable" than "favorable" rating. It's hard to run on a record of accomplishment in city government when a majority of Richmonders don't like city government; the poll indicates that 50% disapprove of City Council's performance. (The other Council member in the race, Jon Baliles, is less well known but has much lower unfaves, most likely due to his opposition to Mayor Dwight Jones' policies over the past few years.)

One final note: it's OK to be skeptical of these poll results, or at least to consider that the election results may be quite different. Morrissey's clearly in the lead, but I think the poll overstates his support. Polling has always been more of an art than a science, and changes in communication technology have made them increasingly unreliable in general. This lack of reliability can only be defeated by regular, repeated polling, to reduce the "noise" that can skew results in individual polls. (My skepticism should not be seen as a knock on CNU and pollster Quentin Kidd, who by all accounts is a good social scientist.)  And so there are two reasons why Morrissey shouldn't be popping the cork just the yet:

  • There's a high number of undecided voters, especially just two months out from the election. A quarter of those polled had no preferred candidate, and a majority of voters have no opinion on all candidates but Morrissey. The rest of the candidates will fight tooth and nail over these potential voters, while hoping to steal some of Morrissey's support. (Especially if the media pays more attention to his checkered past as a result of his front-runner status.)
  • The CNU poll reported that 90% of respondents say they will vote. As I tweeted earlier today, that's literally unbelievable. Turnout was over 70% in VA in 2012 (thanks to Richmond Mag's Robinson for crunching the numbers), but as VA seems to be less competitive in the national election we may not approach that percentage. Indeed, the NY Times noted last year that "survey respondents overstate their likelihood of voting. It is not uncommon for 60 percent to report that they definitely plan to vote in an election in which only 40 percent will actually turn out." I suspect that in the CNU poll, many of those who say-but-won't are typical low-information citizens, who just don't pay attention to politics. If those folks have heard of anyone, it's Morrissey.

I'll be talking to WRIC-8's Mark Tenia about these numbers on tonight's news. The bottom line is that again, this is only one poll; still, since it's likely to be the only one, the numbers from it likely will drive campaign storylines all the way to the election.