Gene Locke's campaign has released the first poll taken since November 3. The poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday nights (November 9 & 10) by Paul Maislin, who also polled for Lee Brown and Bill White. The poll showed Parker leading by a 43-39% with 18% undecided. The margin of error was 4%.
The poll shows that Parker and Locke are splitting Peter Brown votes fairly evenly with most white Democrats shifting to Parker and Brown's African-American supporters moving to Locke. The undecided voters at this point are mostly suburban, white and Republican leaning. The suburban-white-Republican-leaning voters that have made up their minds about the race are breaking strongly in Locke's favor by about a 70-30 margin. This group is primarily been responsible for Locke moving from 10% down in the election to within the margin of error of Parker.
The poll is modeled on a 170,000-voter turnout in the election. About 180,000 voters voted on November 3. Turnout normally falls in a run-off election, however in the 2001 mayoral election, when Lee Brown was challenged by Orlando Sanchez, the turnout actually increased from 280,000 to 310,000. UH political science professor and long-time Houston pollster, Dick Murray, thinks this could happen again this year. The general consensus is that a low turnout in this election helps Parker because of her relatively small, but very loyal base. Conversely, if turnout is higher, Locke will be the likely beneficiary because additional voters will more likely be African-Americans or Republic leaning voters.
Here in my mind are the critical factors to watch over the next four weeks:
1. African-American Turnout/Enthusiasm. Locke got just under 70% of the African-American vote with almost all the rest going to Brown. This poll indicates that Locke will virtually shut Parker out of the black vote. The question is how many African-Americans will vote. On November 3, probably only about 45,000 African-Americans voted. In the 2001 election, when Lee Brown was besieged by Orlando Sanchez, nearly 100,000 voted in the run-off. As a result Locke has huge up-side potential in the African-American vote.
2. The Suburban-White-Republican-Leaning Undecideds. The suburban-white-Republican-leaning voters do not have an ideal candidate in this race. The ones that decided quickly broke to Locke. One can speculate that these were likely social conservatives for which Parker's lifestyle and liberal activism are automatic disqualifiers. The balance of these voters will be more likely motivated by policy specifics such as crime, immigration, city finances and traffic. How the candidates differentiate themselves on these issues will likely be the deciding factor. The debates could be very important in competing for these voters. Locke has some advantage in that a number of high profile Republicans such as Robert Eckels, Ned Holmes and Chase Untermeyer have already endorsed him. Parker has few offsetting Republican endorsements.
3. The Suburban-White-Republican-Leaning Turnout. The second question with respect to suburban-white-Republican-leaning voters is will they vote. Of course, historically this group turns out at very high rates. However, there is also the possibility that with two clearly identified Democrats in the race they may declare a pox on both their houses and stay home. Based on how this vote is breaking so far, a higher turnout will likely favor Locke.
4. Fundraising. It is likely that both campaigns will be reasonably well funded. Locke has enjoyed the support of most of Houston's business establishment and Parker has the ability to raise national GLBT money. Parker's first-place finish has also won her the support of some traditional City Hall vendors such as the engineers and contractors. Having a war chest will be critical. The race is likely to turn highly negative in the home stretch. Each side will need to have funds to respond to the negative ads you will undoubtedly be seeing soon.
I think the main take away from the poll is that this race is very much up for grabs. Parker has the inertia but Locke has the momentum. However, neither is an immoveable object or an irresistible force.