The race for St. Petersburg’s next Mayor is still anyone’s to claim, according to the the first public survey of the race from St. Pete Polls.
The results, released Wednesday, show a runoff is all but inevitable, with no candidate receiving even close to 50% of the vote.
The poll was broken down into two questions — one asking respondents who they would vote for among a crowded field of both frontrunners and lesser known, likely uncompetitive candidates and another asking only about two frontrunners.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice narrowly leads at 15% among the more crowded field, which includes former City Council colleague Wengay Newton, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, as well as perennial candidate Paul Congemi and political newcomers Michael Ingram, Michael Levinson, Vincent Nowicki and Marcile Powers.
Newton and Welch both claimed 14% support among that pool while no other candidate cracked double digits. Nearly 43% of respondents indicated they were still undecided.
Asked who they would vote for if the race were between just Rice and Welch, a General Election matchup many believe likely, Welch has a strong lead with 31% support to Rice’s 24%. In that scenario, nearly 46% of voters are still unsure.
The top-line results are interesting. They show Welch with an advantage if he makes it to the General Election. But getting there, which likely requires not only outperforming Rice, but besting Newton, could be the bigger challenge.
All three frontrunners are Democrats, though the race is nonpartisan and party affiliation won’t appear on the ballot. But St. Pete’s mayoral races tend to become partisan anyway.
Newton interestingly leads among Democrats in the poll with 20% to Welch’s 19% and Rice’s 18%. Rice and Welch have largely claimed the progressive lane in the race while Newton, who has previously supported Republicans for office and sided with GOP issues in the Florida House during his brief tenure as a Representative, offers the more moderate approach.
But, Newton claims just 6% support among Republican respondents while Welch claims 10% and Rice just shy of 10%. Among independent voters, Rice leads with 16% support, followed by Newton at 15% and Welch at 11%.
Race will also likely be an issue in the race with both Welch and Newton looking to carry the Black vote in their respective South St. Pete districts. There, Welch has a solid lead with 32% support compared to Newton’s 28%. Rice garnered just 4% support among Black respondents. That demographic was also the most sure of their preferred candidate early in the race, with only 23% indicating they were still undecided.
Rice leads among White voters with 19% support while Welch and Newton are tied at just over 9% each.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rice, who would be the city’s first woman Mayor to serve under its strong Mayor form of government, does not have the lead among women voters. Welch claims that honor with a three tenths of a percentage point lead over Rice at 16.5% to 16.2%. Newton claimed just 13% support among women, but leads among men with 17% support. Rice follows with 13% support and Welch with 11%.
The poll throws into question much of the political calculus among insiders so far.
First, assumptions that Rice and Welch will face off in the November General Election might not be as sure of a bet as previously thought, with Welch and Newton polling neck and neck at this point in the race and with Rice’s lead in a Primary Election matchup, where third and fourth tier candidates will siphon at least some votes, is within the poll’s margin of error.
That means money could play, not particularly surprisingly, a large roll in the August outcome. So far, Welch’s money game is far outperforming Newton’s, which could help him claim more of the undecided vote as more voters learn about the candidates.
Second, women don’t appear to be flocking to Rice’s campaign as the only top-tier woman in the race, as evidenced by her neck and neck support with Welch.
And lastly, Newton does not appear, at least not at this point, to be the preferred option among Republican voters. The early poll could suggest that Republican voters, of whom nearly 56% were undecided, are holding out to see if an actual Republican jumps into the race.
The bottom line though is, the contentious, and likely expensive, mayoral race still has a lot of ground to cover before the August primary.
“This recent poll suggests a couple points. One, the race is wide open and any of the top three could emerge in the run off,” said Tampa Bay area political consultant Barry Edwards. “Two, there is no dominant candidate like Jane Castor in Tampa Mayor’s race two years ago. Three, the Republican voters are searching for a candidate to support, who gets them a win.
“The race is still wide open for another candidate. The winner on every poll is undecided. Does this entice a Rick Baker or Robert Blackmon, Ed Montanari, to take a second look and get in. I would expect more candidates.”
The poll was conducted among 581 likely St. Pete voters. It has a margin of error of 4.1%.
Here is the full polling results document: