The landscape of the Houston mayoral contest largely is unchanged since the race’s last major poll, showing state Sen. John Whitmire with a narrow lead over U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee if the Nov. 7 election were held today and a commanding lead over the congresswoman in a potential runoff, according to a new poll published Tuesday.
Despite an uptick in activity and advertising in recent weeks from the 18 candidates vying for Houston mayor, the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs’ poll shows no campaign has succeeded in shaking up what political observers long have considered a two-person race of longtime local politicians.
Whitmire’s 50-year career in the Texas Legislature appears less detrimental to his election hopes than Jackson Lee’s 28-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives. From the 800 likely voters surveyed, 43 percent said they would never vote for Jackson Lee, compared to just 15 percent who said the same about Whitmire. That shows in polling of a hypothetical runoff on Dec. 9, in which 50 percent of respondents said they would vote for Whitmire compared to Jackson Lee’s 36 percent.
“At this point, it looks like it’s still the top frontrunners we looked at in July,” said Renée Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School. “Now, we’ve got 3 months since the last poll, and you would think that there was a possibility that a Gilbert Garcia or a Lee Kaplan with that extra time, considering they’re well funded, they’d be able to rise more in the polls. What they’ve done in terms of these numbers is very insignificant.”
The poll of 800 likely voters was conducted online Sept. 30 to Oct. 6 and has a margin of error of plus- or minus-3.5 percent.
The poll offers a glimpse at the race less than two weeks before early voting begins on Oct. 23 and exactly four weeks before Election Day.
More than one-fifth of those surveyed remain undecided, at 22 percent, according to the poll.
While a large number of likely voters have yet to make up their minds, that figure is unlikely to help Jackson Lee make up ground on Whitmire. Of the undecided respondents, 53 percent said they would never vote for Jackson Lee compared to just 16 percent who said the same about Whitmire.
“That’s certainly the downside of being a political veteran and having a long record,” Cross said. “To battle that within a very short period of time is going to be very difficult.”
In a statement Tuesday, Jackson Lee’s campaign cast the poll’s results as a positive because Whitmire has been unable to expand upon his lead since the school’s first poll in July, despite a large uptick in campaign spending.
“Sheila Jackson Lee’s approach has always been focused on the people,” read the statement. “She believes in the power of one-on-one conversations and connecting with the community she seeks to serve. We have invested in the people of Houston and she is out there, earning one vote at a time, sharing her story, and listening to the concerns and aspirations of our fellow citizens.”
Whitmire responded Tuesday evening, arguing the poll shows his opponents’ strategy of attacking his policy positions isn’t working.
“The Hobby School poll makes two things abundantly clear, we have a clear path to victory and Houstonians don’t react to negative political attacks,” Whitmire wrote in a statement.
Other candidates on the ballot include former Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, Attorney Lee Kaplan, Councilman Robert Gallegos, former Councilman Jack Christie and former Councilman MJ Khan.
Despite recent spending on billboards, direct mail and cable television advertisements, candidates Kaplan and Garcia have been unable to make a dent in the gulf in support between their campaigns and the two frontrunners. Christie entered the race later than most candidates in August, and has been unable to gather much support to this point, according to the poll.
Garcia and Christie both polled at 4 percent, while Kaplan garnered 2 percent, according to the poll. Gallegos and Khan both came in at 1 percent; 10 other candidates received at less than 1 percent according to the poll.
Based on the polling, Cross said it is unlikely a third candidate can encroach on Whitmire or Jackson Lee’s support.
“With the exception of, if something catastrophic happens regarding one of the candidates, that might open things up for a third candidate to come in, but it would have to be a major discovery because those candidates have been around for a long time,” Cross said.
Running as political outsiders, Kaplan and Garcia have managed to make inroads in name recognition if not a serious bump in polling.
Of those surveyed, 43 percent said they definitely or might consider voting for Garcia, up from 29 percent in the Hobby School’s July poll. Kaplan also saw a bump from 19 percent to 24 percent between the two polls. The percentage of voters who definitely or might consider voting for Gallegos also grew from 27 percent to 31 percent.
Khan and Christie, two candidates running as conservatives, both saw just over one-fifth of respondents who definitely or might consider voting for them, according to the poll.
Whoever the next mayor is, they may end up working with a City Council bearing new powers over the council agenda.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they support the charter amendment that would allow three council members to place an item on the City Council agenda without the input of the mayor. Only, 12 percent said they are against the proposition and 31% remain undecided.
That amendment, known as Proposition A, is not the only charter amendment before voters this fall.
Proposition B would amend the city’s charter to require the city to renegotiate the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s voting structure to give Houston and Harris County a voice proportional to their populations. Houston, for example, contains 30 percent of the population in the 13-county region covered by the metropolitan planning organization, but only holds two seats on the board. Combined, Houston and Harris County represent 57 percent of the region’s population, but only hold four seats.
The Hobby School did not poll respondents on Proposition B because the ballot measure’s wording is more complicated than the Prop A language, according to the poll report.
“Proposition B’s ballot language is written at a college level of reading comprehension and any voter without the requisite background information regarding it would be challenged to provide a valid response regarding their vote intention,” reads the poll report.
Respondents also were asked about the controller’s race, where undecided voters still have a big part to play.
Of those polled, 29 percent said they intend to vote for former Harris County clerk Chris Hollins, 14 percent for former city councilman and county treasurer Orlando Sanchez, 8 percent for Councilmember Dave Martin and 4 percent for Chief Deputy Controller Shannan Nobles. A whopping 45 percent of those surveyed said they are undecided.
Hollins was the only candidate in the race who fewer than half of those surveyed said they did not know enough about him to have an opinion. Just over 50 percent said the same about Sanchez; roughly three-quarters said they did not know enough about Nobles or Martin to have an opinion, according to the poll.
Tuesday is the final day to register to vote. Early voting for the municipal elections begins Oct. 23 and runs through Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 7.