Who Will Win Mayoral Primary?
Voter turnout may decide which two candidates get through primary.
In early January I was hearing rumblings that some Democrats had done an IVR survey — a quick cheap automated poll that can often be pretty accurate — and found that of all the potential candidates, state Sen. Chris Larson led the field.
Larson, after all, ran twice for Milwaukee County Executive, in 2016 and 2020, and won the primary both times before losing in the general election, and by a tiny margin in 2020. It seems quite likely he would have had the most name recognition of any possible candidates. (I never did track down any such poll.)
But we’ve now had a second poll, by Milwaukee Works, a 501(c)(4) that has done previous polls on local policy issues and candidates, which came up with the same leader, Johnson, though the rankings were somewhat different after that. State Sen. Lena Taylor took second in the first poll, with 18%, while former Milwaukee alderman Bob Donovan took second in the second poll, with 18%. Taking fourth in both polls was Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic (9% in first poll, 7% in second) and fifth place went to Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas (7% and 5%). Michael Sampson and Ieshuh Griffin weren’t included in the first poll and were both at 1% in the second one.
It’s worth noting that Milwaukee Works is led by Daniel M. Adams, an attorney who has been an ally of Chris Abele, who is backing Johnson in this race. But Adams says Abele has nothing to do with his group and the poll was done by Public Policy Polling (PPP), one of the most accurate and highly regarded pollsters in the nation. Moreover, the entire results of the poll were released, and nothing about the questions seems jiggered to help Johnson.
In short, Johnson looks like the best bet to get through the primary. But the percent of undecideds in both polls (25% and 30%) is large enough to upset expectations. Whether Johnson takes first and who else makes it through the primary may greatly depend on one factor: the turnout of voters.
The last time there was no incumbent and an acting mayor in the race was in 2004, when there 10 candidates. The result was a huge turnout, of nearly 136,000 voters. Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt, former Congressman Tom Barrett and Sheriff David Clarke finished in that order and Barrett won the general election.
By contrast, the 2016 primary had three major candidates, Mayor Barrett, Ald. Donovan and Ald. Joe Davis, who finished in that order. The total vote was just under 66,000. Donovan then lost to Barrett in the final.
A turnout like 2004 would make for a far more unpredictable race. If as many as 30% of likely voters are undecided, that’s some 40,000 voters, who could elevate even someone as low as Lucas to first or second. Indeed, the PPP poll shows that crime is by far the most important concern for voters, which ought to play to the strengths of a sheriff and former police officer.
But 2004 was a very different race at a very different time than this one. Mayor John Norquist had announced in 2002 that he would not run for reelection and in June 2003 said he would resign at the end of the year, with Common Council President Marvin Pratt taking over as acting mayor. As a result, a flock of candidates got into the race early and there was time for months of debates. I was working for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time, which was then still the Goliath of state media and decided to give the race huge coverage. (I was one of many reporters who helped cover the campaign.)
But the JS has little of that clout or readership left today and barely covers City Hall. And this race has a far shorter time frame. Add to that the pandemic and confusion over voting rules (we still don’t know whether absentee ballot boxes will be allowed) and the turnout is likely to be more like 2016 than 2004. So where does a lower turnout election leave the candidates? Here’s my predicted order for the top candidates in the primary.
1st: Cavalier Johnson. He’s leading in the polls, he has the most cash on hand and is backed by a millionaire (Abele), and his campaign is run by the highly experienced Nation Consulting group. Johnson, moreover, has been running hard on the crime issue, which is by far the number-one concern of voters and he has the lowest negatives of any candidate (in the PPP poll), which could help him win over many of the undecideds. He just has to hope there isn’t some disaster in the next three weeks (say a massive blizzard the city handles poorly) before the election.
2nd: Marina Dimitrijevic: Yes, she averaged fourth in the polls, but doesn’t have that much ground to make up to take second. The alderwoman has a strong, clearly defined image as the most liberal candidate in the election, has picked up union endorsements, has a good ground game and campaigns hard. She has raised a respectable amount of money, which Donovan and Taylor are unlikely to get anywhere near. Her unfavorable rating is worrisome (38% of those expressing an opinion in the PPP poll) until you compare it the negatives for Donovan and Taylor.
4th: Bob Donovan: The theory on Donovan is that he can’t win the general election, but is a shoo-in for the primary election because he is the most conservative candidate with a base of supporters (21,000 in the 2016 primary) he can always count on. Except that many of those supporters were police and fire fighters, 55% of whom have left the city since the Legislature ended the residency requirement, as Urban Milwaukee reported. Donovan can’t grow his support because his negative rating (60% of those expressing an opinion) is off the charts. But he might sneak past Taylor.
5th: Earnell Lucas: Truly an enigma. How can someone who won for county sheriff just four years ago show so little support in the polls? How can someone who served four years in a high-profile position be left with so many people (57%) having no opinion of him and 42% of those expressing one viewing him unfavorably? How can a career law enforcement officer be letting Johnson dominate the crime issue? If Lucas figures out some answers to this he could be spoiler, but he has only three weeks to do so.
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Political Contributions Tracker
Displaying political contributions between people mentioned in this story. Learn more.
- December 17, 2020 - Cavalier Johnson received $100 from Daniel Morgan Adams
- April 23, 2018 - Tony Zielinski received $100 from Michael Sampson
- April 23, 2018 - Tony Zielinski received $900 from Michael Sampson
- September 14, 2017 - Tony Zielinski received $100 from Michael Sampson
- February 13, 2017 - Cavalier Johnson received $834 from Chris Abele
- September 22, 2015 - Tony Zielinski received $100 from Michael Sampson
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2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who Will Win Mayoral Primary?”
Thanks, Bruce. There is so little info on this race. I was thinking that Donovan would make it, since he’s the only conservative candidate. But after reading your article, I think it may come down to Dmitrijevic vs. Johnson. I will vote for Marina because she is the most progressive of the bunch.
Bruce, I think your analysis is on the money as well. Having worked closely with Marina for many years on the County Board, I believe that the combination of her well-honed organizational skills coupled with the energy with which she pursues whatever goals she sets her mind to accomplishing, will serve her well in the upcoming primary.
In fact, given the sound and energetic base she has developed over her many years of public service, I would not be surprised if she finished at the top of the field.