Thoughts on the first poll in the Savannah mayoral race

In my City Talk column today, I take an extended look back at the numbers from the 2003 Savannah city election, especially the mayoral race. I consider factors like turnout and race that should be relevant again this year.

I also took a great deal of interest this week in a piece by Larry Peterson: Poll says Jackson, Felser leading in Savannah mayoral race

Atlanta-based National Research Associates released the poll — the company’s first major political poll — showing Edna Jackson with 23%, Jeff Felser with 18%, Ellis Cook with 14%, Floyd Adams with 10%, Regina Thomas with 9%, and 23% undecided. James Dewberry was not considered a viable candidate (more on that in a minute). The methodology surveyed 563 likely voters, a fairly good sample I’d say given that probably only about 23,000 voters will actually turn out if we follow the pattern of 2003.

Still, there was a margin of error of 5%, which seems pretty large.

I got in touch with National Research Associates after Larry’s piece came out to see if they would send the crosstabs — the breakdown of respondents by age, race, party affiliation, and so on. The company is not making that information public, which obviously raises some questions.

Still, the numbers seem about right to me for this point in the race. The numbers are different than I would have predicted, but the order of candidates is precisely where I would have put them.

A few observations:

  • In the last two elections, the two alderman-at-large — Edna Jackson and Jeff Felser — won by huge margins. Savannah voters know their names and have voted for them in the past. Even with a strong anti-incumbency mood, the advantages of incumbency and notoriety shouldn’t be minimized.
  • Edna Jackson, long considered the heir apparent to Otis Johnson, can’t have been too heartened by the poll, which showed her support to be soft enough to eliminate almost any chance of getting more than 50% of the vote in the general election. A couple of weeks ago, I thought there was still a slight chance of her hitting that halfway mark on one vote.
  • 23% of respondents were undecided, but there was no information regarding the depth of support for any particular candidate. I suspect another 10% or more — maybe a lot more — are open to changing their minds over the next three weeks.
  • While he was not included in the poll, James Dewberry will pick up at least 2%, which will bite a bit into someone’s support.
  • There’s a clear path forward for Ellis Cook. If he seems electable and can marshal the support of the more conservative voters in the race, his share of the vote on election day should be well over 20% and possibly enough to put him in a runoff.
  • And there’s obviously a clear path forward for Jeff Felser, who looks like a strong second in this poll and seems to have an upbeat vigorous campaign going. He has also garnered a lot of support from young professionals who might not have appeared in a poll of likely voters (especially if that poll relied on land line telephone surveying).
  • While well-respected and well-known, neither Floyd Adams nor Regina Thomas seems to have ignited a base of support to challenge Jackson as the leading black candidate. Some well-connected whites in Savannah who supported Adams when he was mayor have shifted their allegiance to Jackson. Adams needs to get some of those voters back, and both he and Thomas need to pull more votes from Jackson’s base of support in the city’s black neighborhoods. In my column today, I take issue with overly simple racial assumptions, but there are general trends that can’t be ignored.
  • One of the key drivers of turnout will be the referendum on allowing Sunday package sales of beer, wine, and liquor. That is likely to attract more younger people to the polls. Given the dynamics I’ve seen so far, I’d say that gives another slight boost to Felser.
  • There have been surprisingly few fireworks so far. No one has gone on the record to say that they would not sign a new contract with city manager Rochelle Small-Toney in January. No one has laid out a clear plan for a site or funding for a new police headquarters or for the proposed arena; both projects were mandated by voters in the SPLOST vote of 2006, but there’s not money to do either.