Pre-election polls are usually discarded as quickly as a losing candidate’s yard signs, but I think the ones surveying the St. Petersburg Mayoral Race deserve a second look, if for no other reason than to gauge the accuracy of the polls and the organizations which commissioned them.
I’d argue that it was the publication of two polls within the last two weeks of the election that helped clear up what had been a particularly murky campaign. With ten candidates running, six of whom were considered viable, but all of whom had overlapping bases of support, it was unclear as to who were the top two candidates.
Further, much of the prevailing wisdom was that one, if not both, of the two well-financed, first-time candidates, Deveron Gibbons and Scott Wagman, would make it to the General Election. Rumors also circulated that Mayor Rick Baker had a behind-the scenes role in the commission of the poll by the Downtown Partnership, in order for Baker to convince the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times that their preferred choice, Democrat Scott Wagman, was not going to make the run-off and that the Times should endorse Bill Foster to ensure that he made it through to face-off against Baker’s and the Times‘ mutual nemesis, Kathleen Ford. Finally, it was the publication of the two polls that forced three of the candidates, Gibbons, Wagman and Williams to go on the attack, something rarely seen in multi-candidate races.
It was the publication of the results of the first poll, which showed Kathleen Ford leading, that shaped the final days of the campaign. Published on the same day as the major televised debate, the poll had an inordinate impact on the decisions of the major candidates.
With her first place showing in the polls and her play-it-safe approach at the debate, a consensus grew that Ford was a lock for the run-off in November. If Gibbons, Wagman or Williams wanted to face against Ford, they would have to go after Foster, a risky maneuver in multi-candidate race. And go after him they did. Not soon after the poll’s publication did Gibbons (via direct mail), Wagman (via online messaging) and Williams (via TV commercials) attack Bill Foster. Outside interests, like Equality Florida, even attempted to make the race as a showdown between their preferred candidate and Bill Foster.
The efforts clearly failed as Foster, in a strong second according to the Downtown Partnership poll, surged ahead in the last poll, commissioned by the Times and in the actual results.
Foster’s strong showing, in which he essentially won a third of voters still undecided a week before the election, proves that the negative campaigning of Gibbons, Wagman and Williams did not work.
Taking in the full sweep of the polls, it also becomes clear that Gibbons would have been much better off to have gone after white voters in south St. Petersburg, rather than just rally the black vote in Midtown.
I had predicted that Gibbons, in a either victory or defeat, end up with about 20% of the vote. He would have made the run-off if Williams and Bennett performed better. But they did not and that meant those votes were up for grabs. Gibbons never targeted white voters in Coquina Key, Bahama Shores, Pinellas Point, etc. Voters much more comfortable with voting for a black candidate than conservative Republican voters in Snell Isle. I have to challenge the assertion of some who say that Republican voters abandoned Gibbons — they were never, ever with him.
I’ll take it a step further and say, Gibbons would have been better off if he had positioned himself as a change agent. With Foster, Ford and Williams eating up the Republican vote, there was no room for Gibbons. Where there was was among moderate Democrats uncomfortable with the liberal agenda of Wagman. Call them the Ken Welch block. Wagman took these votes by default. Gibbons could have cut into them and picked up 500 or 1,000 votes he was never going to get from the Yacht Club crowd. Gibbons should have talked about his youth and energy and he would have done better in downtown St. Pete and the Bayboro district.
What is interesting about both polls is that they got the order of finish exactly right, so any issue with either poll is simply a matter of degrees. I think Deveron Gibbons has the most to be upset about regarding these polls because both surveys, and the subsequent media coverage, made it appear as if Gibbons was not viable.