State Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee would be neck-and-neck for first place if the Houston mayor’s race were held today, but Whitmire would sprint ahead in a potential runoff, according to the first major poll of the contest.
The poll released Tuesday confirms what many political observers long have suspected: high name recognition gives Jackson Lee and Whitmire an edge over the rest of the crowded field ahead of the Nov. 7 election.
However, Jackson Lee’s decades as a familiar face in Houston politics also could hurt her. Dragged down by the nearly half of voters who have at least a somewhat negative view of Jackson Lee, she would trail Whitmire by 18 percent in a runoff.
The poll, an online survey of 800 likely voters between July 12 and 20 by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, offers the first glimpse at which candidates already have established themselves as potential contenders.
Its results should be interpreted with caution, however, since there are months to go before the election and few of the candidates have begun spending in earnest on ads and outreach.
Renée Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School, said in a prepared statement that the poll shows that Whitmire and Jackson Lee essentially are household names in Houston.
“Relatively few voters say they don’t know enough to have an opinion about either Congresswoman Jackson Lee or, to a somewhat lesser extent, Senator Whitmire, while more than half say they don’t know enough about the other challengers,” she said.
In the mayoral race, a candidate needs a majority of votes — one more than 50 percent — to win outright and avoid a runoff election with the second-place finisher.
The University of Houston poll found that in a first round of voting, Whitmire would take about 34 percent of the vote compared to Jackson Lee’s 32 percent, within the 3.5 percent margin of error. The rest of the field drew less than 3 percent support, with 22 percent of voters undecided.
On the broader question of who voters “definitely” or “might” consider voting for, 29 percent said they would consider casting a ballot for Garcia; 27 percent said they were open to considering Gallegos. Nineteen percent said the same about Khan, while 18 percent said they were open to considering Kaplan.
In a runoff, the line dividing Whitmire and Jackson Lee would sharpen. He would take 51 percent of respondents’ votes compared to 33 percent for her.
Of the survey respondents, 40 percent had a very negative view of Jackson Lee, compared to 8 percent of Whitmire. While the race officially is nonpartisan, Jackson Lee is particularly weak among Republicans, only 2 percent of whom said they would vote for her. Whitmire, like Jackson Lee, is a Democrat, but he would take 56 percent of the GOP vote in the first round.
Whitmire’s edge over Jackson Lee in a runoff came largely from his anticipated sweep of Republican votes, with a whopping 88 percent of GOP respondents favoring him over Jackson Lee. These numbers highlight Whitmire’s bipartisan appeal, Jones said, a narrative he’s been championing since the start of his campaign.
Meanwhile, Jackson Lee is the preferred choice for Democrats in a potential runoff, albeit with a narrower margin of 55 to 28 percent.
“The reason why Whitmire is the winning candidate in the runoff is that he gets virtually all of the Republican vote, a large majority of the independent vote and at the same time is still able to win a quarter of the Democratic vote,” Jones said. “Republican votes lined up strongly behind Whitmire in large part because of his record on being tough on crime and his moderate image.”
The two candidates’ voter bases are markedly divided along demographic lines as well.
Jackson Lee commands a significant edge over Whitmire among Black likely voters in a runoff scenario, claiming 64 percent to Whitmire’s 19 percent. Whitmire, on the other hand, surpasses Jackson Lee among white and Latino likely voters, with 63 percent and 54 percent of those groups, respectively, saying they intend to vote for the state senator.
Differences also emerge along gender lines. Whitmire nudges ahead among women, with a runoff vote intention of 43 percent compared to Jackson Lee’s 38 percent. This lead significantly amplifies among men, where he garners 58 percent support, far ahead of Jackson Lee’s 27 percent.
Houston elections have a history of being unpredictable, according to Nancy Sims, a veteran political consultant and a political science lecturer at the University of Houston. With November still a few months away, the numbers in the poll should be taken with a pinch of salt, she said.
“It’s extremely early to be predicting a runoff,” Sims said. “It clearly gives Whitmire an advantage. What it doesn’t take into account, of course, are the issues and events that will occur as the campaigns heat up.”
Much of this election hinges on voter turnout, she said, and key factors will include whether Black voters — who overwhelmingly back Jackson Lee — become more engaged as the campaign evolves, whether Republicans ramp up their support for Whitmire, and whether some Democrats start to question Whitmire because of his moderate stance.
The early polling results have also painted a large target on Whitmire’s back, Sims said. As a result, both Jackson Lee and the other 12 candidates will likely focus their energy on challenging the state senator.
A Chronicle editorial that quoted Whitmire’s plan to bring in 200 Department of Public Safety troopers to Houston if he becomes mayor has stirred up some backlash from activists and others on social media. Sims said she expects more incidents like this will unfold in the coming months.
“One thing we’ve historically seen is, although mayoral elections are nonpartisan, they tend to take on a more partisan shape towards the runoffs,” Sims said. “Will the race begin to take on a bit more polarization as it moves forward? That could make all the difference.
Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, agreed with Sims’s assessment that substantial shakeups in voter sentiment could still occur.
“This is the first snapshot of the electorate in this particular point in time,” He said. “Can another candidate come up from the bottom or can someone slip from the top? Absolutely.”
All right, my thoughts:
– Election polling for city races is tricky because you just don’t know what the “likely voter” base looks like. It varies too much from cycle to cycle. We’ve only had two city elections since the change to four-year cycles in 2015. The numbers themselves in this poll are believable enough. It’s just that the error bars around them are very high, and that has nothing to do with the margin of error.
– One point I have made before is that there are a lot more registered voters now in the city of Houston than there were in 2015, the last time there was an open Mayor’s race. Over 150K new voters as of last year, probably more by the time we start voting. That means that the turnout level is higher to begin with, and the electorate will contain a significant number of people with at most one previous city election in their history. I don’t know how this poll screened for likely voters, but that is a challenge for any pollster.
– I’d have to look at the data on new voter registrations since 2015, but given the way Harris County elections have gone since then, I’m going to guess these folks lean decidedly Democratic. The two frontrunners are of course both longtime Democrats, but Whitmire’s support among Republicans could be wielded against him by the Jackson Lee campaign. That said, some of these newer voters are Republicans and independents, and some of the new Democrats are likely to be in alignment with Whitmire. At the opening jump, it’s not clear that either of these two candidates might have an edge among the newbies.
– It’s very important to remember that basically nobody is paying that much attention to the Mayor’s race right now. Outside of some yard signs, it’s not very visible yet. The non-Whitmire and SJL candidates have some money to spend but haven’t made their presence felt yet. Every poll is a snapshot in time. This one captures name ID more than anything else given where we are in the process.
– Runoffs are their own election entirely, and they have always exerted an outsized force on the Mayoral race because they tend to be concentrated in a couple of districts. What’s weird about this year is that with only three district Council races and no HISD races of interest, it’s likely that most if not all of the runoff energy will be in the other citywide races. (District H is the only Council district that looks like it will have a runoff, given the current state of the lineups.) I can’t think of a similar example from the past.
– The three potential At Large runoffs, as well as the Controller runoff, could feature a Black candidate as one of the choices. That would seem to favor SJL, given the poll’s data. On the other hand, at least one At Large race plus the Controller’s race could also feature a Republican candidate, and that would seem to favor Whitmire. District E could have a runoff if a third candidate emerges, and that would also favor Whitmire. My point here is that you can’t say anything about the Mayoral runoff without knowing what other races are also having runoffs.
– I think we are going to see more polling than usual in this race, and I think those polls are going to be all over the place. Please, whatever you do, be very careful about any narratives based on whatever poll (of whatever quality) that just got released.