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Hours after Ward 4 D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser won a not-quite-decisive victory in her own ward’s mayoral straw poll in February, one Bowser supporter pitched LL on his grand theory of the race. In February, Bowser was still hovering just above her rivals and far behind Mayor Vince Gray in a public poll, but this Bowser loyalist wasn’t concerned that Gray’s rivals would split the vote like candidates in recent crowded D.C. Council races.

Instead, he figured people would ditch less viable challengers like Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, even if they hadn’t done that in past elections, for one reason: People are more invested in who their mayor is.

Nearly two months later, that’s exactly where we are. Evans and Wells have shed supporters, and Bowser has picked them up to tie Gray with 27 percent of likely voters, according to a Public Policy Polling poll commissioned by Washington City Paper and WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show. The poll, taken between March 13 and March 16, surveyed 860 likely Democratic voters, with a margin of error of +/- 3.3 points.

Set to spend gargantuan amounts of money (much of it raised from corporate contributors) in the past few days—Bowser’s and Gray’s campaigns both spent around $500,000 each between March 10 and March 24—Bowser and Gray are statistically tied.

This is the perfect situation for Bowser’s campaign, which has been claiming for months that the mayor’s race had come down to two candidates. Now, it looks like they’re right. “We’re pretty excited to be pretty even with the mayor and obviously gaining momentum,” Bowser campaign manager Bo Shuff tells LL.

Evans and Wells trail the two leading candidates with 13 percent and 9 percent, respectively, in the City Paper/Kojo Show poll. Wells’ campaign criticizes the survey’s methodology, which only sampled landline users, emailing supporters to ask how many of Wells’ younger-skewing supporters actually had landlines. Evans, meanwhile, improbably claims that he could win based on being voters’ second choice.

“Everybody likes me, but I’m the second choice of everybody,” Evans says.

But a Washington Post poll released Tuesday shows a similar situation, with Bowser receiving 30 percent and Gray with 27 percent among likely voters, still neck and neck with a 6.5 percent margin of error. (Wells had 14 percent to Evans’ 6 in the Post poll, which also sampled cell phones; the difference, though, was within the two polls’ margins of error.)

Bowser could have an advantage over Gray if their opponents continue to lose support. In the PPP poll, 39 percent of respondents who weren’t supporters of any candidate picked Bowser as their second choice, more than any other candidate. Gray trailed his rivals as the second choice, with Evans receiving 18 percent of second-choice votes and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal getting 11 percent. Gray had just 10 percent.

It’s hard to believe as candidates spend down their reserves and throw final-stretch happy hours for supporters, but whoever wins the primary will have seven months more to campaign before facing independent At-Large Councilmember David Catania—and potentially more opponents—in the general election in November. Any Democratic nominee will have some work to do unifying his or her base: 47 percent of respondents in the PPP poll said they’d be somewhat or very likely to vote for a non-Democratic candidate if their primary choice lost. (The same number said they’d be not very likely or not likely at all to vote for a non-Democrat.)

The Post poll found Gray and Catania tied at 41 percent in a hypothetical matchup, while Bowser handily beat him, 56 to 23.

For Gray, the poll’s findings might seem ironically familiar. A total of 59 percent of respondents told PPP that quality of life in their neighborhoods had improved over the past four years, while only 14 percent said it had declined. When Gray beat ex-Mayor Adrian Fenty four years ago, 58 percent of respondents told a City Paper/Kojo Show poll the same thing. An unpopular Fenty went on to lose the primary by 11 points.

Of course, there’s even less mystery this time about why voters might be willing to toss out a mayor who’s got the city functioning the way they want. Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies blames that disconnect on a “smear campaign” orchestrated by the media—especially the Post—and U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, most recently in the March 10 guilty plea from Gray shadow campaign financier Jeff Thompson.

“It’s the only logical conclusion,” Thies says.

Smear campaign or not—and LL leans against believing in a campaign coordinated among every District media outlet, Machen, the FBI, the IRS, and multiple Gray confidantes-turned-informants—the federal investigation is undermining Gray’s popularity. Gray asked voters, in his State of the District address this month, whether they believed him or Thompson; in the PPP poll, 48 percent said the answer was Thompson. In his version of events, Gray hit him up personally for more than $400,000 worth of campaign help, then requested help swaying a union election, cash for a relative, and home improvements for a close friend. Gray’s version, meanwhile, in which he had no idea that his friends and Thompson were conspiring to break the law on his behalf, was believed by only 24 percent of respondents.

Thies claims that people who believe Thompson are overlooking the light, six-month prison sentence Thompson will receive in exchange for cooperating with authorities, including avoiding charges of destruction of evidence or obstruction of justice. “No one seems to think that’s a big deal,” Thies says. “Well, everyone is wrong. Everyone is wrong on that. It’s an enormously big deal.”

In what’s probably small comfort to the mayor, at least a majority of likely voters don’t think he’s alone in his alleged law-breaking. Asked whether the recent charges against Councilmembers Michael Brown, Kwame Brown, and Harry Thomas Jr., and the probe into Gray’s election represent “a few bad apples” or “a deeper culture of political corruption,” voters overwhelmingly say the whole District has a problem, 58 percent to 17 percent.

As the political cliche has it, the only poll that matters comes on Election Day. So with less than a week left, Bowser’s campaign has started spending money at a far faster clip than it had been earlier in the race. Some of the biggest expenses are coming from mailers and large full-color lamppost signs with Bowser’s face. The campaign has also spent $107,000 buying TV ad time for a commercial that features Bowser talking to people bedecked in Fenty green and promising to be “the mayor you can trust.” Wink, wink.

Gray’s campaign, once content to dismiss all of the challengers, seems to have finally acknowledged Bowser as a contender. Last Friday, Gray’s campaign registered “Muriel Not Ready,” a website devoted to painting Bowser as a lightweight. It even comes with an accompanying video of Bowser admitting she’s only managed three or four people, all of it set to bouncy music.

Gray has also teamed up more prominently with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, a switch from 2010, when Fenty operatives sent reporters pictures of the mayor-for-life in Gray gear as proof Gray would return the city to the bad old days. Instead of claiming they can’t control who Barry supports, Gray’s campaign has embraced him, organizing an endorsement event last week. The mayor’s organization has also distributed lit with a picture of Gray and Barry in the center at early voting sites. The tagline: “It is us against the world.”

On Monday, Gray made his campaign pitch to a group of Baptist ministers in a church near Fort Dupont Park in the mayor’s home Ward 7. Instead of focusing on Gray’s accomplishments and his program to help the homeless through congregations, though, many of the ministers wanted to ask him about the federal investigation.
“It’d be a heartbreak to see you carted off,” one minister told Gray.

But according to polls, not every Washingtonian would be as heartbroken as that minister to see Gray indicted. And nearly a majority of them wouldn’t even be surprised.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery