Two polls of likely City voters have now confirmed that the election for Houston’s next mayor has become a two-person race between State Senator John Whitmire and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. All other candidates are polling in the low single digits.
In the most recent poll, conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, Whitmire edged Lee in the first round with 34%-32%, with 22% undecided and all other candidates getting a combined 12%. No other candidate received more than 3%.
In a hypothetical run-off between Whitmire and Lee, Whitmire got 51% to 33% for Lee. Between them in a run-off, 12% was undecided with 3% indicating they would not vote. In the hypothetical run-off, about half of the previously undecideds and almost all of those voting for another candidate broke for Whitmire. In contrast, Lee was only able to marginally expand her vote from the general election.
This is largely explained by the fact that a whopping 44% of Houstonians said they would never vote for Lee.1 That percentage for all other candidates was in the mid-teens. Whitmire was the least objectionable candidate with only 13% saying they would never vote for him.
Lee’s high unfavorable rating was confirmed by another poll, conducted for the Houston Regional Business Coalition by Chris Perkins, one of the state’s top pollsters. It showed that 30% of likely voters had a very unfavorable opinion of Lee and another 8% had a somewhat unfavorable opinion. Whitmire had only a 7% very unfavorable opinion and another 5% somewhat unfavorable opinion.
That poll, which was conducted earlier this year, also found that Whitmire and Lee will dominate the first round but with more undecideds. It also showed Whitmire with a substantial lead over Lee in a run-off at 45%-33%.
These polls generally confirm what I have found regarding the electorate that has historically decided the outcome of Houston mayoral elections. There are three dominant groups – whites that lean Republican, whites that lean Democratic and African Americans. These groups are roughly the same size and will make up nearly 80% or more of the vote. While Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the City, they still make up a much smaller portion of the voters in City elections. The UH poll has them at 18%. I am skeptical it will be that high. Asian Americans and others will make up about 5-10%.
The partisan breakdown in the City leans strongly Democratic. The UH poll showed that 50% of City voters identified as a Democrat with 34% Republican and 16% unaffiliated. The Perkins poll had the partisan breakdown at 42%-23%-32%. I am inclined to think that the Perkins poll is probably closer to what the actual breakdown will be.
But these breakdowns do not reflect the true damage that has been done to the Republican brand among City voters. In the Perkins polls, Donald Trump had a 65% unfavorable rating. That is about 10% above the national average for his unfavorable rating. Abbott has a 56% unfavorable rating in Houston, while his unfavorable rating statewide generally polls in the low 40s.
This brand damage is why it is impossible to elect anyone as mayor of Houston that is “running as Republican.” After Lee filed, several Republicans called me to make the argument that they could rally the “Republican base” to get in the run-off and then win the run-off because of Lee’s high unfavorable rating. The scenario is delusional. Anyone running as a Republican would have to denounce Republican leaders like Trump and Abbott to have any chance at winning the election, which would turn off the Republican base.
Also, it is important to note that while the number of Houstonians which have an unfavorable view of Lee is unusually high, she still has a net positive approval rating of 53%-38%, which is about the same as the approval rating for Biden within the City and in stark contrast to the 28%-65% for Trump. Indeed, the most favorable scenario for Lee would be for an identifiable Republican to make the run-off.
Houston pundits are fond of saying that no one pays attention to the mayoral election until after Labor Day and that it is too early to make any firm predictions. Historically, there has been some truth to that conventional wisdom. Bill White came out of nowhere in 2001, and in the summer of 2015 the polls were showing that I would have little chance of making the run-off.
But polling on this year’s race shows a much starker separation between the two front-runners and the rest of the field than any I have ever seen. I am always cognizant of the immortal words of the great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, that “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” Nonetheless, I will go out on a limb in this case and predict that the name of the person sworn in as mayor on January 1 will either be Whitmire or Lee.
Note 1 – It is interesting that the number of people who say they would never vote for Lee is higher than her unfavorable rating (44% vs 38%). That means that some people who hold a favorable view of Lee would nonetheless do not view her as good mayoral material.