The pros and cons of an independent poll conducted this late in the Philadelphia mayoral race

Less than a month before the primary election, Philadelphians are about to conduct their first public opinion poll on the mayoral election.

The good government group Committee of Seventy is partnering with the community nonprofit Urban Affairs Coalition, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the election reform advocacy group FairVote and local news site The Philadelphia Citizen to conduct the survey, which will survey 1,000 likely voters and be independent from any candidate. The results will be announced by April 28.

What is the benefit? The poll could aid voters make a strategic decision about where to direct their support – perhaps backing Choice 2 if they think it will keep someone else from winning.

In Philadelphia, turnout is typically low in off-year primary elections. With a gigantic field of viable mayoral candidates, the race could hinge on fewer than 10,000 votes to choose the next leader of the city of 1.6 million.

“The lack of polling has made it difficult for Philadelphians to make informed decisions about who to support in the mayoral race,” Lauren Cristella, interim president and chief operating officer of the Committee of the Seventy, said in a press release. “We want every eligible voter to vote, to be informed about the vote, and to vote with confidence in the vote.”

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Polls can influence elections and have been criticized in recent years for keeping voters focused on the “horse race” rather than policy proposals and platforms.

The mayoral candidates participated in two televised debates and literally dozens of forums. He also showed up main survey on the issues Philadelphians consider most critical, reliable reporting on candidates’ supporters and donors, a lawsuit over alleged campaign finance violations, and, of course, plenty of political advertising on television and direct mail.

But not everyone paid attention to it, whether it was due to lack of time, lack of interest, or because it simply didn’t cross their radar.

“I would be cautious about announcing any results before Election Day because I would really like to avoid a situation where I would influence the race,” Penn political science professor Daniel Hopkins told Billy Penn.

More public information isn’t a bad thing, Hopkins said, but he thinks pollsters should be cautious when their work could significantly influence the outcome of an election.

It’s human nature to want to support winners, and a poll showing a particular candidate in the lead may gain him more support or discourage supporters of other candidates from voting, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Between very close campaign observers trying to pick a winner and other voters just following the race, there is reason to believe that undecided voters are still able to determine the winner of the upcoming primary.

“In some elections,” Hopkins noted, “as many as about a quarter of people say, ‘I decided last week.’”

Who responds to surveys?

Hopkins’ objections also raise the challenges of voting based on who tends to react for surveys in first place — namely, more educated voters.

He also said he wouldn’t essentially release a snapshot of voter support without additional context about how Philadelphians felt at the beginning of the cycle.

When would be a good time to publish your first survey?

“I am a proponent of waiting until after the petition is filed,” said Lauren Vidas, an elections attorney and government relations specialist. “I think this is the point where people are starting to become more aware of urban race.”

Independent public opinion polls are the hallmark of state and national campaigns. However, they did not play a particularly critical role in the recent Democratic primary in Philadelphia.

The last truly contested mayoral race was in 2015, when then-Councilmember Jim Kenney and state Sen. Anthony Williams raised by far the most donations of the five candidates.

“I’m not sure there was an independent poll this year, but I would also suggest it probably wasn’t as mission critical,” said Vidas, the elections lawyer. “There were clearly two leaders, and everyone else was wildly lagging behind.”

There has been a movement in American cities to introduce ranked-choice voting instead of winner-take-all voting. Because it takes voters’ second and third favorite choices into account, supporters say, it can better reflect a candidate’s true popularity.

Pennsylvania law does not currently allow ranked-choice voting, but the Committee of Seventy poll will be conducted that way as an experiment. A public online survey will also be conducted on the group’s website, the results of which will be published separately.

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