Rivard Report file photos
Mayor Ivy Taylor is on track to capture 53% of the vote in the May 6 municipal election, according to a survey of 400 registered voters in San Antonio commissioned by her very own campaign team. Wait: a second survey of another 400 voters shows Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) headed for a runoff. That survey, of course, was commissioned by Nirenberg's campaign team.
What to make of it all? Especially less than five months after pollsters and mainstream media were caught flat-footed by Donald Trump's narrow victory over Hillary Clinton for the presidency, people stopped believing in polls.
The numbers and predictions swirling around San Antonio political and business circles come with a caveat: Both polls were surveys commissioned by candidates for internal use and paid for by the campaigns. As the election season heats up with early voting beginning April 24, campaigns are using such survey information to influence voters and and potential campaign donors, and look for areas of strength and weakness in their own campaigns and those of their opponents.
Both polls indicate the self-funded campaign of Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina is failing to catch fire with likely voters. Nirenberg, political observers say, needs Medina to draw enough votes as a spoiler candidate to deny Taylor an outright win in the first round. Of course, Medina sees himself as the more likely candidate to prevail over Taylor.
Austin-based Baselice & Associates conducted its survey from March 9-12 on behalf of Taylor's campaign that showed her avoiding a runoff by winning more than 50% of the vote. However, a copy of the poll's summary obtained by the Rivard Report contained no information about what questions were asked or how they were asked.
Nirenberg said a recent internal poll shows him making it into a runoff against Taylor, but he declined to produce actual numbers or other details.
Both the Taylor and Nirenberg campaigns declined to release full reports on their surveys. It's standard practice for political campaigns to keep poll data private. It often includes positive and negative messaging tests and information about other campaign strategies that candidates and their teams do not want candidates or voters to see.
Baselice's poll has Nirenberg at 16% and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina at 13%. About 18% of the poll's respondents said they weren't voting, declined to answer, or hadn't decided yet, according to the survey summary.
"In my view – based on last week's survey as well as independent poll results we were briefed on in January – Nirenberg is in the weakest position, losing ground to both Medina and the Mayor," stated political consultant Christian Anderson, who works for Taylor, in a letter to the campaign's finance committee. The results indicate that Taylor is doing well across every demographic of race and political affiliation. "The best news for us is that Mayor Taylor is consolidating her support at a much faster pace than Medina."
The poll has a 5% margin of error, which easily tips 53% to 48%, a number that would trigger a runoff. On top of that, there is growing skepticism about the accuracy of political polls in the wake of President Donald Trump's poll-defying victory last November.
"We just got the results that show an entirely different story, that Ivy and I are headed to a runoff," Nirenberg told the Rivard Report. The Northside councilman's campaign said it hired a pollster based in Washington, D.C., to conduct a survey, but would not disclose the name of the firm. Polling done for Nirenberg's campaign also had a 5% margin of error.
Medina's campaign is considering commissioning its own poll, according to campaign spokesman and former Councilman Carlton Soules, who noted that "data gets stale pretty fast, and numbers are [too] fluid."
Really, there's no way to know what was asked in these polls or if they were focused on citizens in certain parts of the city who are more likely to vote, said Henry Flores, a professor of political science at St. Mary's University. Flores is a well-respected and longtime election observer. He's been a faculty member at St. Mary's for 33 years, served as a department chair for two terms, and directed graduate programs in public administration and political science.
Private political polls are quite different from academic polls or ones that news outlets commission, Flores said, mostly because the results are just that: private.
"The only polls that may be really accurate," he said, "are those from someone [or an organization] without a horse in the race, so to speak."
Without knowing the wording of the questions asked, it's relatively easy to arrange the results out of context, Flores said. Often, the main question of "Who you would vote for?" is asked several times throughout the call. Then, the surveyors will test out messaging and give the voter information about a candidate's positions or history. "Given that information, now who would you vote for?" is a common question.
Flores doubts that the polling numbers shared with the press are the "real" numbers.
"They appear to be more for publicity's sake than for drawing conclusions about accuracy," he said.
Like Flores, Soules expressed skepticism about the polls.
"I don't know if this is a poll to know where they're at [with voters] or to reassure donors," Soules told the Rivard Report. "Ivy and Ron are spinning donors and trying to calm their supporters. Medina is simply out there talking to voters. The only poll that matters will take place on May 6 on Election Day."
Christian Archer of the OneSA municipal bond political action committee wasn't surprised by the numbers put out by Taylor's campaign.
"Beating an incumbent mayor is incredibly hard," Archer said. "I thought Ron or Manuel would make a run at the mayor, but that's not materializing. ... [Doubling their numbers] is a very, very expensive thing to do. It doesn't happen overnight, and the clock is ticking."
Archer, who previously worked as campaign manager for former Mayor Julián Castro, said releasing poll numbers that show a substantial lead carries the risk of energizing opponents.
"[Medina and Nirenberg] need to kick it up about four or five notches," he said.
As far as Nirenberg is concerned, it's been kicked up.
"Mayor Taylor is looking over her shoulder," Nirenberg said. "That's why she wants to develop a narrative that she's doing great."
Whatever the internal polls say now, they likely will tighten in the next few weeks, Flores said, and then candidates will have to fight for attention against Fiesta celebrations that dominate San Antonio for two weeks in mid-April.
"...[T]he mayor is taking nothing for granted in this campaign," Anderson stated in an email. "She's talking with voters every day about what she's doing to ensure every San Antonian has the opportunity to get ahead. The poll results show voters are choosing her positive, forward-looking message by big numbers. She clearly has the momentum."
Meanwhile, Medina's campaign gained two endorsements on Tuesday, from the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and a local Tea Party group.
Firefighters union President Christopher Steele accused the City and the Mayor of corruption and wasteful spending as he introduced Medina on the steps of City Hall.
Medina has made similar accusations.
"On May 6 we will have a new mayor, and on May 7 we will have a new city manager," Medina said.
The firefighters union is currently embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the City that challenges the evergreen clause, which allows for an expired contract to remain in place for 10 years. City Council ultimately wants a contract that would have firefighters paying for a portion of their or their family's health insurance costs.
Political observers expect the police union to endorse Taylor, a socially conservative inner-city Democrat. She is often credited with playing a key role in brokering a new contract with the police last year.
All three candidates seem to find hope in the differing, often contradictory numbers. Voters can make up their own minds, knowing the only measure that counts is turning out to vote.