RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The long, LONG election season finally comes to a head on Tuesday. We will not only see the end – hopefully – of the seemingly endless Presidential race; but here in Richmond, we’ll have the culmination of a similarly epic battle for Mayor. After 29 (!) forums, 17 different candidates have been winnowed down to just five, with only three who have a realistic shot at the office: Jack Berry, Joe Morrissey, and Levar Stoney.
Since I am a political scientist, I am often asked what I think will happen in the race. But since I am a political scientist, I’ve also learned to avoid predicting the political future (Thanks, Dave!) – the human variables involved have always made predictions a dicey proposition. Still, I can at least lay out the different scenarios we might expect from the Mayor’s race this week.
Remember that to win, a candidate needs the most votes in five of the city’s nine election districts. If not, the top two vote-getters citywide, regardless of district performance, go to a December 20 runoff.
Here are, as I see it, the four most likely scenarios for Tuesday’s outcome.
1.) Joe Morrissey wins outright.
What can we expect from a Mayor Joe Morrissey? According to his opponents, nothing less than human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria! (Actually, University of Richmond Professor Thad Williamson recently posted a list of what to expect from a Morrissey mayoralty, and none of it is good.)
A Morrissey win seemed like a foregone conclusion after the race’s first major poll was released by Christopher Newport University in late August. Nothing, not even his most recent sexting scandal, seems to be able to damage his “rock star” status in some quarters of the city.
Still, while I may be too much of an optimist, I don’t see this outcome as likely. The CNU numbers, as well as subsequent polling, suggested that large swaths of Richmond voters were undecided. The options for these undecided voters are dwindling, especially after City Councilman Jon Baliles dropped out this past week. Even if Joe’s core support stays strong, enough of these undecided voters should consolidate behind the remaining candidates to produce a runoff (see below).
2.) Jack Berry or Levar Stoney win outright.
This seems the least likely scenario of the four, although it is technically possible that either Berry or Stoney could win the five districts they need. The earlier polls and, more importantly, demographics of each district suggest that Berry will certainly prevail in the white West End of the city (the 1st, 2nd, and 4th). But he has very little support in the city’s majority-minority districts. Stoney has a slightly better shot of winning districts away from Morrissey; he is more likely to appeal to minority voters than Berry, and was polling in second place to Morrissey in those districts. Still, an outright Stoney win mostly relies on Morrissey’s support absolutely collapsing, and there’s no evidence to suggest that will happen.
3.) Morrissey is forced into a runoff with either Berry or Stoney.
This seems the most likely outcome. Again, this assumes Morrissey retains the support of his base. Still, there would be enough undecided voters left that, even divided among the remaining candidates, one of them gets the #2 spot.
Of course, the other candidates would need to prevent Morrissey from winning 5 districts. Still, it’s entirely possible that either Berry or Stoney could win enough votes in the Northside (3rd district) or central (5th) to take those. Stoney also has a strong shot to win the 9th, especially if City Council President Michelle Mosby, who is still in the race, continues to win over Morrissey voters in her home district.
So, there’s a good chance we’ll have a runoff. But will it be Berry or Stoney who faces Morrissey? If you ask Morrissey, it’s Berry – that’s who he attacked in the last mayoral forum. But Stoney’s campaign has made much of the fact that recent polls suggested he was running second in all nine districts. It’s possible that Stoney could gather enough broad support across the city to outpace Berry’s deeper numbers in the West End.
4.) Berry and Stoney face off in December.
Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Graham Moomaw tweeted out this option during the past week, calling it a “weird #RVAMayor scenario.” But the more I consider this option, the more likely it seems to be. (Hat tip to my neighbor Bryce Lyle for pushing my thinking on this.)
The likelihood of this depends on your assessment of the range of Morrissey’s support. A mid-October ChamberRVA poll put him at 20% citywide. More importantly, he was polling between 20-30% in each of the city’s majority-minority districts. If that’s his max, then in each of those districts you have 70-80% of voters still left to be divided among the remaining candidates. With Mosby unlikely to win more than a few percentage points outside her home district, and architect Lawrence Williams unlikely to win more than a handful of actual votes, that leaves the majority to be divided among Berry and Stoney.
A 40-30-20 split of the overall vote isn’t hard to imagine; and after his recent troubles, it’s not impossible to imagine Morrissey getting the last of those three numbers. Sure, he spent the entire election cycle as the guy to beat. But what if his initially high poll numbers were an artifact of his greater name recognition and the vast number of opponents? What if, now that the field has been winnowed down and voters have gotten to know the other candidates, Morrissey’s front-runner status was just a mirage?
At this point, it would be good to point out the many, many grains of salt that need to accompany these scenarios. I’ve seen many media reports and social media posts pointing to the poll numbers that I’ve cited above, but we need to remember how unreliable single polls can be. It’s not that these polls were conducted badly; it’s just that polling is incredibly hard to do accurately, and the best numbers we have come from aggregations of repeated, varied polls. (Think Princeton Election Consortium and Nate Silver’s 538.)
In local races like ours, we just don’t have the resources brought to bear on producing stable numbers we can trust. The district-level data is particularly erratic, with very high margins of error. I’ve tried to make my assumptions above based more on district demographics than anything else, but even that is not always predictive. (Demographics are not destiny.)
So like everyone else, I’m left guessing a lot. If I had to make one about Tuesday, my best guess would be a runoff among two of the top three candidates, with a significant chance that Morrissey is left out entirely.
If that’s true, we have (ugh) another month of campaigning to look forward to. For Richmonders tired of this endless election, it could be a long month ahead. If Joe Morrissey is involved, it could be even longer.