When the University of Houston’s Hobby School 2019 mayoral election poll dropped, there was a collective shock. Not because the poll, conducted by Rice University Professor Mark P. Jones, had incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner in the lead, but it was by how much that caught many off guard.
In the poll, Turner led with 43.5 percent of the likely vote, trailed somewhat distantly by challenger Tony Buzbee at 23.4 percent and Bill King with 7.8 percent.
The poll was rather standard, a mix between landlines and cellphones, roughly 500 registered voters who had recent voting history and conducted over a week following Hurricane Imelda. What was not standard was the lead the mayor had on his opponents. Even in runoff scenarios, Turner took the lead securing another win.
The election cycle has been inundated with allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and cronyism. But most of those issues didn’t resonate significantly enough with Houston’s polled voters.
Most interesting is Turner’s support among Blacks.
It’s commonplace for Black elected officials, or candidates, in urban areas to carry a large portion of the Black voting bloc. But with this race, it seems as though other candidates are barely registering with black voters.
Turner’s support among blacks sits comfortably at 59.4 percent while Hispanics came in at 42.6 percent. In fact, the only place in which Turner is losing is in White, and Asian and Native American support, but even in those, the differences are marginal. In White support, for instance, Turner trails Buzbee by less than 3 points, but in black support the closest to Turner is Council Member Dwight Boykins who is still 45.9 points behind.
It’s Turner’s support among black women, especially, that is keeping him well above water. Turner is polling at 63.9 percent among black women, the highest of any candidates’ support from any gender and race segment. Black men are supporting Turner at 51.6 percent, while lower than black women it is still far higher than any other segment. This, I believe, is where the problem lies for his challengers.
It seems as one of three things is happening: the challengers’ messages are not resonating, particularly with black women; the accusations of racism lobbed by Turner are preempting, and essentially nullifying, attacks on his administration; or they are failing to reach out to these voters in earnest.
I’d argue messaging isn’t the issue. The poll showed flooding (41.1%), crime (22.0%), property taxes (9.0%), traffic congestion (8.4%), and road quality (8.0%) were what voters cared about the most. However, every single candidate in this race has talked breathlessly about these issues and their plans to address them. In fact, the only candidate without a publicly available plan on addressing any of these issues is the mayor himself.
When each challenger entered the race, they did so swinging against the incumbent. Detailing what, they call, mismanagement, misspending, and outright corruption. But on a mayor who literally spends his weekends visiting family reunions and cookouts in parts of town other candidates only recently started to venture, these attacks haven’t stuck, so far.
Whether it’s a ribbon-cutting at a grocery store in a food desert or a family event at a community center, Turner has showed up consistently over the past four years. In a major city, that level of retail politicking is something that is hard to combat in a short amount of time.
In that time, consider the amount of people he has courted and, even if only a brief interaction, left a positive perception of a mayor who is deeply connected to the community, enjoyable to be around, and “fun.” With a constant solidifying of a base the way Turner has done, it makes it hard to enter a race as a virtual unknown among those communities and have your allegations be effective enough to convince them that the mayor they have come to know is not who he claims to be.
Now, couple that with the mayor’s consistent line of attack that his two main opponents are using dog whistle politics to attack his administration, as well as the allegations of outright racism, for many people that will preempt any complaint one has of the mayor.
When the person they know and feel comfortable with is saying the two people who they haven’t regularly seen in their community are racist, they are likely to believe it and disbelieve the attacks against him. Think of it as a friend who you might have issues with, if someone else brings those issues up, you’re likely to put that aside and defend the one you know.
Of course, that isn’t to say everyone falls prey to the mayor’s rhetoric or message, but there is a reason he has used it so consistently. He has found it to be a successful line of attack and an easy way to divert attention from the issues within his administration.
With the complaints from Pastor D.Z. Cofield of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church about the mayor pulling his support of a battered women’s shelter, and complaints from community members like Ms. Gattison who drew attention to what she claimed was the mayor ignoring her community when it came to Harvey relief funding, there is a wide open, but slowly closing, door for challengers to draw attention to the lack of resources, attention, and support the mayor has actually given to black and brown communities. Sure, there has been endless lip service by the mayor, but have there been results?
For someone who is running on the notion that he is the best poised to address urban issues in those communities, the mayor has done very little over the years to actually do so and with the clock ticking, candidates would be wise to let voters know.