One week before Baltimore's Democratic primary, the race for City Council president remains extremely tight, with Michael Sarbanes, a longtime activist, and incumbent Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake attracting nearly equal support, according to a new poll conducted for The Sun.
With a sizable number of undecided voters -- 28 percent -- the candidates are battling for every vote in the final stretch of the campaign in what will likely be the closest election Sept. 11.
Thirty-three percent of likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters polled said they would vote for Sarbanes versus 30 percent for Rawlings-Blake. The difference is within the poll's margin of error, which is no more than 4.1 percentage points.
But there are signs that the race could be shifting in Sarbanes' favor, said Steve Raabe, president and founder of OpinionWorks, the independent, nonpartisan Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll for The Sun.
Sarbanes has a slight edge among undecided voters who say they are leaning toward one candidate or the other, as well as among those who have made their decisions within the past month, according to the poll.
"It's a totally different race from the mayor's race, and [Rawlings-Blake] has every possibility of winning this race and very well could, especially depending on the turnout," said Raabe. "But at the moment, the trend is toward [Sarbanes]."
The race is shaping up to be far more competitive than the mayor's race. The Sun reported yesterday that in the same poll, Mayor Sheila Dixon has a nearly insurmountable lead over her opponents. Dixon leads her closest competitor, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., by 46 percent to 19 percent, with none of the other candidates garnering more than 5 percent.
Sarbanes, who is on leave from his position as executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, is the son of Paul S. Sarbanes, the longest-serving senator in Maryland's history. His brother, John P. Sarbanes, was elected to Congress last fall. A former top aide to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Michael Sarbanes is making his first run for citywide office.
Rawlings-Blake, the daughter of the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, was elected to the City Council in 1995, the youngest person ever to win a seat. Her colleagues elected her City Council president in January, making this her first citywide campaign, too.
Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes are among four candidates running in the Democratic primary for City Council president. Also running are City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who captured 7 percent in the poll, and Charles Ulysses Smith, a frequent candidate, who failed to register any support.
OpinionWorks interviewed 559 likely Democratic primary voters from Aug. 26 through Aug. 28 for the poll.
Both Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes picked up support since The Sun's last poll. In that poll, conducted from July 8 through July 10, 27 percent of voters said they would vote for Sarbanes versus 26 percent for Rawlings-Blake, with 37 percent of the electorate undecided.
Both candidates had high favorability and recognition ratings in the more recent poll. "Her recognition is just slightly lower than his," said Raabe. "He obviously benefits a lot from the association from his family, but so does she."
Rawlings-Blake -- who has been endorsed by Dixon -- had a higher crossover rate with the mayor, according to the poll results, but it wasn't a "one-for-one thing," said Raabe.
Rawlings-Blake was ahead among African-American voters, getting 38 percent of voters, compared with 20 percent for Sarbanes. Sarbanes captured 50 percent of the white voters polled, compared with Rawlings-Blake's 21 percent.
Among women voters, the two were nearly even, and among men, Sarbanes was ahead by 6 percentage points. "She's not getting the women's vote the way that Dixon is." said Raabe. "She has not really locked down the African-American vote, and even though it's on balance leaning toward her or it's for her... it's not the Dixon phenomenon."
Donald F. Norris, professor and chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he was surprised by the results. "I am very, very surprised that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not doing better," said Norris. "He's doing twice as well as white candidates in the past running against credible black candidates. He's doing twice as well among whites as Kurt Schmoke. Both results are really interesting."
Still, Norris thinks that if voter turnout is high and a large percentage of African-Americans come out to vote, Rawlings-Blake will win.
Meanwhile, Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, said if turnout is not as high --which is likely, given the large number of undecided voters at such a late stage -- the race could break in favor of Sarbanes since white and more affluent voters will tend to vote for him.