(Image: The Philadelphia Citizen)
This primary election is an immensely consequential election for Philadelphia’s future, with an open Mayoral seat for the first time in 8 years, a wide-open race for the five City Council At-Large seats, and a few competitive District primaries, too. Even assuming all incumbents win re-election, there will still be 12 new faces on City Council who weren’t there during Mayor Kenney’s first term.
Philadelphia’s philanthropic and media institutions, recognizing the potential for path-breaking change in this election, have admirably stepped up to raise the standard of debate on the issues that matter to residents and issue advocates by funding media coverage of the election, and many, many in-person candidate forums on a wide range of topics.
Unfortunately, these institutions haven’t invested in a high-quality poll of the electoral horse-race yet, and Philly voters are worse off for it.
Why polls matter
A high-quality independent poll is necessary at this point in the race for voters to be able to make sense of where the race stands, and vote strategically to advance their political goals. It is very useful to know, for example, if your first-choice candidate is a total long-shot, but your second-choice candidate has a better chance of winning.
Likewise, this kind of information also helps issue advocacy groups or membership organizations active in the election — and especially ones who can’t afford to pay for their own polling — to direct their energies more effectively to advance their missions. Independent polling would help everyone to better determine for themselves “who is best on my issues, who also can win?”
While the survey industry has had its challenges with precision since around 2016, election survey research is still broadly useful for learning about the dynamics of elections, like the level of name recognition the different candidates have, or which candidates appeal to which demographic voting blocs.
Another benefit to having a high-quality independent poll is that it would provide some objective measure of where things stand, rather than letting the Mayoral candidates’ own internal polls set the public narrative around who is most viable. Without any non-partisan institutions releasing credible professional polls in a transparent way, the Mayoral campaigns themselves are able to use internal polls of unverifiable quality (or worse) to spin a media narrative about their candidates’ electability, without any accountability for showing their work.
Earlier this year, the Jeff Brown campaign and the Jeff Brown Super PAC had released several internal polling toplines that were meant to feed the narrative that Brown was the frontrunner and that the race was essentially a two-way contest between Brown and Councilmember Helen Gym. In one memorable case, the Inquirer reported on a poll paid for by the Jeff Brown Super PAC without telling readers who conducted the poll.
This status quo is not an acceptable alternative to the idealized world where voters make candidate decisions purely based on issue stances, with no polls to sway anybody. It has actually created a vacuum where misinformation can thrive.
An honest appraisal of who’s going to win
Back in the 2000’s, there was an important critique of political journalism that gained traction which said that the political media tended to focus excessively on electoral horse-race issues, and that when covering public policy issues, they’d typically pay too much attention to the electoral implications and not enough to the substance.
Since then, there have been a lot of positive initiatives in the media ecosystem to move away from this, with more news outlets focusing on the policy stakes of elections, community reporting, solutions journalism, and other lenses on politics besides just the who’s-up-who’s-down aspect.
With all of the forums this primary election season, and the bumper crop of organization questionnaires, there’s a lot of issue content out there for voters to digest. And Philly’s political media outlets have been making a valiant effort to attend many of these forums and contextualize what the candidates had to say.
Thanks to these efforts, the body of information produced by the Every Voice, Every Vote project is going to ensure the typical voter in Philadelphia can make some reasonably-informed inferences about which candidates are associated with which baskets of policy positions.
But without a non-partisan poll from a trusted institution, voters are still missing an important metric for deciding how to cast their vote: an honest, neutral appraisal of who’s likely to win.
The funders of the Every Voice, Every Vote election project had an opportunity to include a horse-race question set in their extensive voter survey this winter — but didn’t. And, unlike in past elections, none of the major news organizations participating in the EVEV project appear to have plans to conduct their own independent polls either. For reference, a high-quality citywide survey could be had for $15,000-$25,000 — a large sum, but certainly affordable for some of the institutions involved.
This was a more understandable position earlier in the year, when news of one candidate’s early lead could have created a positive feedback loop of support for that candidate. But we’re now at the point in the race where, starting next week around April 21st, those voting by mail will begin receiving their ballots.
Between Jeff Brown’s recent stumbles, and Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Derek Green exiting the campaign, the race for Mayor is starting to take shape, and a few candidates have a path to winning. Knowing who those candidates are now is especially important, given that a large share of the voters will be casting votes beginning next week.
Philadelphia doesn’t have ranked-choice voting, and there’s no run-off system like in Chicago between the top two candidates either, so the crowded field of candidates makes it more likely someone could win with as little as 20 percent of the vote. And turnout in an off-year Philly municipal election — even a pretty momentous municipal election like this one — could optimistically be expected to see less than 20 percent voter participation from the registered Democratic voters who will pick the party’s nominee.
With a plurality-winner outcome and low voter turnout all but assured, Philadelphia’s philanthropic and media institutions owe it to the voters to provide them with the unbiased information they need to cast a strategic and effective vote starting next week — a non-partisan citywide poll.