As the candidates for mayor file into the starting gate, it appears to be a two-and-a-half man contest. Mayor Ray Nagin faces an uphill re-election battle against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, and Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman has some work to do to get into the hunt; but he also has lots of room to grow. The rest of the field remains below radar.
Those are the results of a recent survey by Ed Renwick, the veteran pollster and Loyola Institute of Politics director, for a group of local business owners. The survey was taken Jan. 26-Feb. 13 and included telephone interviews with 400 registered voters citywide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The good news for Nagin is that everyone; literally, 100 percent in the survey; knows who he is. The bad news is that only 44 percent think he's doing a good job; 53 percent said he's doing a bad job. Those are disastrous numbers for an incumbent less than two months before Election Day.
In an open race between Nagin, Landrieu, Forman and former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, the results were as follows:
Landrieu, 35 percent;
Nagin, 25 percent;
Forman, 9 percent;
Wilson, 7 percent.
Landrieu had the most evenly balanced support among white and black voters, getting 35 percent from each group. He also was the leading second choice; among voters surveyed.
Nagin got 35 percent among blacks but only 19 percent among whites; proof that his chocolate city remarks and his otherwise poor performance post-Katrina have crippled him in his once-solid white base.
In a head-to-head race, Landrieu trounces Nagin by a vote of 55 percent to 29 percent; beating him handily among both whites (61-22 percent) and blacks (47-38 percent).
In contrast to the near universal name recognition of the front-runners (71 percent said they knew a lot about Landrieu), Forman was known well by only 29 percent of those surveyed. But, among that group, 72 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the Audubon CEO. If he can hold that ratio of favorability and increase his name recognition significantly, Forman will become a threat. This is a familiar challenge for non-traditional candidates. In fact, it's exactly the problem Nagin faced — and overcame — four years ago.
The bigger challenge for Forman will be getting black support. He scored only 4 percent in the Renwick survey; but, in fairness, the poll was taken before his current spate of TV commercials. It will be very interesting to see Forman's numbers near the end of March.
Wilson's numbers are proportionately as bad as Nagin's, only she doesn't have Katrina to blame. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed had heard a lot about her, and their opinions of her were 18 percent favorable — and 39 percent unfavorable. She led the field in the 'least likely to vote for' category with 31 percent, followed by Nagin at 21 percent. If Nagin is still talking directly to God, he better ask the Lord to put Wilson in the runoff against him.
The most important thing to remember about any poll is that surveys do not predict the outcome of an election. They are snapshots in time of voters, attitudes and opinions. As campaigns progress, voter attitudes often change. Indeed, campaign strategies are all about changing those attitudes. In addition, this survey did not include the Rev. Tom Watson or attorney Rob Couhig, both of whom announced after the survey was taken.
The Renwick survey is nonetheless significant for several reasons. First, it shows the relative standings of the best-known candidates at the outset of the campaign. Of course, how candidates finish matters much more than how they start — but strategically, each needs to know where he or she stands at the outset in order to run intelligently. In some cases, the truly intelligent candidates decide not to run after seeing bad poll numbers.
Another reason this survey matters is the abbreviated time frame of the campaign. Candidates will have just seven weeks from the close of qualifying this Friday afternoon (March 3) until the primary on April 22. That's not a lot of time.