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Poll: There's a 3-way race for Akron mayor. Undecideds could make the difference

Akron mayoral candidates Shammas Malik, Tara Mosley and Marco Sommerville.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Akron mayoral candidates Shammas Malik, Tara Mosley and Marco Sommerville (left to right).

Shammas Malik, Marco Sommerville and Tara Mosley have distanced themselves from the pack in the race for Akron mayor, according to a new poll.

The three candidates are running neck-and-neck, in fact, with more than enough undecided voters left to tip the scale in this final week of early voting before the all-important May 2 primary.

A poll of likely voters commissioned by the Akron Beacon Journal, Ideastream Public Media and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron put Malik's support at 18.1%, Sommerville's at 17% and Mosley's at 15.2%. — a virtual tie within the poll's 5 percentage point margin of error.

The separation between the leading and trailing packs of candidates is so great that Malik, at 18.1%, is polling better than the combined total of the bottom four candidates — Jeff Wilhite (6%), Joshua Schaffer (5.1%), Mark Greer (3.4%) and Keith Mills (2.5%).

The Center for Marketing & Opinion Research — with analysis from John Green, director emeritus of the Bliss Institute — has given Akron another rare look inside the 2023 mayoral election with the only publicly available polling.

The mayor will likely be decided in this Democratic primary because no Republican qualified for the race.

The first installment of the Akron Decides series, which was released in February, surveyed a representative sample of Akron. The poll established a list of top issues to help inform the debates and campaigns. This second survey, conducted from March 27 through April 10, attempts to provide a clearer indication of the mayoral contest and candidate enthusiasm by surveying only registered voters who say they're likely to vote, which weeds out Republicans, nonpartisans or people who would otherwise not care to cast a Democratic ballot next Tuesday.

In the time between the two polls, the portion of voters who say they’re undecided has shrunk from 66% to 33%. Most people have now made up their minds. But, to the surprise of the experts behind the poll, most people are also still willing to change their minds. And they're really not that enthralled with their choices.

The 33% of voters still undecided is a huge X factor.

In a nutshell, it’s anyone’s race.

The Malik, Sommerville and Mosley campaigns can celebrate that they're "in the mix," Green said.

"That's kind of the good news" for the leading candidates, he said. "The bad news is, the margins are so close that practically anything could determine the winner among those top three.”

The variables include turnout and electoral reaction to social justice demonstrations against the grand jury decision in the Jayland Walker case, explained Green and Michelle Henry, owner of the Center for Marketing & Opinion Research.

Green and Henry aren't sure whether turnout will suffer or what political calculus will shake out as Mosley and Malik attract police reform-minded supporters and Sommerville scores well on racial justice and equality.

Simply reporting poll results can influence elections, Green acknowledged, addressing a well-known criticism that supporters of trailing candidates lose more ground to the front-runners as their supporters switch their votes to candidates with statistically better chances of winning.

"But this criticism seems to me to be a less problematic one," Green said, "because the people who are way behind in this poll are not going to win. I'm certain of that. Although, I'll put it more scientifically: There'd have to be a very dramatic change, like candidate X seen walking on water."

Who's most likely to win the Akron mayoral race?

Only when Green, who’s conducted thousands of polls in his career, examines the most likely of voters — those who gave a 10 out of 10 when asked if they’re voting — did he see Malik pull far enough ahead of Sommerville and beyond the poll’s margin of error.

Otherwise, Green's modeling couldn't shake the three front-runners loose from their bubble inside the margin of error — even when simulating turnout from 2015, the last open and competitive primary for mayor in Akron.

Those percentages may be small, but there are seven candidates in the race. And the winner doesn’t need 51% of the vote, just more than any of the others. Equally distributing the 33% of undecided voters to each of the top three candidates today would result, in theory, in the next mayor being elected with less than 30% of the vote in a partisan primary.

And the next mayor of Akron — like the last two elected by the people — could be decided in a primary with less than 20,000 ballots cast, in a city of nearly 190,000 people.

“The race is very close,” said Green, whose modeling forecasts margins of victory within the hundreds, not thousands, of votes. “And if present trends continue, the winner will have only a small plurality of the votes cast.”

What's to be seen is whether Malik can hold his narrow lead, especially when he, more than any of the other leading candidates, has supporters who say they're willing to change their minds.

Henry noted that 52.8% of Malik's supporters said they could be persuaded to vote for someone else, particularly if there were damaging new information that knocks him from the high ethical standard his supporters, more than the others, say he embodies. Meanwhile, 61% of Sommerville's supporters say they won't change their mind, for anything. For Mosley, a solid 51% have committed their votes.

Youngest candidate most attractive to voters older than 65

Henry and Green dissected the characteristics and priorities for each candidate's supporters. What emerged were profiles that begin to explain each candidate's attraction.

Malik, the youngest in the race, does the best with the over-65 age group. Mosley does well with 25- to 64-year-old working-age voters. Sommerville does the worst with the youngest voters and lands somewhere between his opponents in the other age groups.

A whopping 72% of women make up Team Mosley, the only woman running for an office with the glass ceiling intact. Malik's camp more closely resembles the demographic mix of the community. Sommerville's backers skew slightly male.

Malik, who is Pakistani and white, does better with white voters. Sommerville, who is Black, and Mosley, who is Black and white, do better with Black voters. Any of them would be the city's first mayor of color.

Mosley's supporters are three times more likely to describe themselves as Republicans who plan to vote in the Democratic primary, compared to her competitors' supporters. Mosley does well with independents and moderates, too.

Malik has the strongest appeal with liberals and a slight advantage with Democrats.

For groups underrepresented in voting rolls, Mosley does well with renters and lower-income voters, which explains why her supporters more strongly prioritize solutions for the city's eviction and homeless crises. Fifty-seven percent of Mosley's supporters and 52% of Sommerville's supporters earn less than $50,000 annually, compared to 67% of Malik's supporters who make more than $50,000. Most Mosley fans (52.5%) rent, while about two-thirds of Sommerville and Malik supporters own their homes.

Malik's supporters are also nearly twice as likely as Mosley's supporters to hold a college degree.

Sommerville and Mosley share supporters who turn to television to get their news.

Malik's backers more often read newspapers, which are the primary source of political information for all registered voters and the general public in Akron, according to the two sets of polling.

Sommerville's supporters strongly rate past experience in government, which is something Mosley and Malik supporters couldn't care less about.

And Malik's supporters, like the general public surveyed earlier this year, are not happy with where Akron is headed. Most of Malik's supporters (53.5%) said Akron is off-track, compared to 73.5% of Sommerville supporters and 53.3% of Mosley supporters who said the city is, overall, on the right track.

Ideastream Public Media's Anna Huntsman contributed additional reporting to this story.

You can reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

About the poll

The Akron mayor's race poll was conducted with 400 registered voters in Akron, yielding a 5% margin of error. Data collection began on March 27 and ended on April 10.

This survey was conducted by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research and sponsored by the Akron Beacon Journal, Ideastream Public Media and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.