Margaret Harley, a 36-year-old health care fundraiser who lives in Pigtown, thinks her adopted hometown of Baltimore is brimming with potential — it just needs a leader who won’t get in their own way.

“There’s so many areas of the city that could be revitalized,” she said. “But there’s no drive for investment. The Police Department has failed repeatedly and repeatedly to get its act together. People don’t want to invest if they feel unsafe. It’s all a vicious cycle that needs tackling.”

Harley is among the roughly 30% of respondents to the Goucher College Poll who haven’t made up their mind or want another choice from the current field competing for mayor — a potentially decisive bloc. When pressed, some of those respondents said they just won’t vote for either of the two leading candidates, Mayor Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Whether Scott and Dixon can change those voters’ fixed perceptions — or whether it encourages another candidate to jump in — is a significant dynamic in the still-early 2024 contest.

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Harley is inclined toward Scott: He’s energetic and his love for Baltimore is crystal clear to anyone who meets him, she said. “We need that energy and that let’s-bring-people-to-the-table attitude,” she said. “I think older generations of leaders are not as ready to do that.”

She said she’s heard good things about Dixon, but she’s torn: “I believe in second chances, but acts like hers while in office make me hesitate.”

Harley said the former mayor has a ways to go to bring herself and other people she knows on board. “I don’t know that I’ve heard new ideas from her. All I’ve heard is, ‘I’ve done it once and I can do it again.’ I haven’t heard the messaging progress beyond that yet, but there’s time to make that happen,” she said.

The Goucher-Banner poll surveyed 537 registered Democrats by landline and mobile about the mayor’s race from Sept. 19-23. Their responses have a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Among the Democrats surveyed, 39% said they would vote for Dixon if the primary election were held today, while 27% chose Scott. Another 23% prefer “some other candidate.”

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Undecided voters and voters who said another candidate were probed further. Respondents who were undecided or said they wanted another candidate were asked a follow-up question: If the race is just between Scott and Dixon, “which candidate currently has the best chance of earning your vote?”

Voters split fairly evenly: Scott netted 36%, while Dixon picked up 33%. A portion of voters were still uncommitted, even in a two-way race: 21% said neither candidate or that they wouldn’t vote. Another 10% were unsure or refused to answer.

At this point in time, undecideds are a really diverse group, in terms of race, age, gender and education, said pollster Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College.

“The big thing is, Dixon will have to work to expand her base beyond the folks that voted for her 2020 and 2016,” she said. “For Scott, it’s all about changing his standing with the general public.”

Dixon, 69, and Scott, 39, have faced off against each other in the mayoral primary before. In 2020, Scott came out on top of a crowded, competitive field by winning 29.6% of the electorate to Dixon’s 27.5% — a difference of about 3,000 votes. About 570,000 people live in deep-blue Baltimore.

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Dixon officially entered the primary last month, marking the third time she’s run for mayor since leaving the office in disgrace in 2010, as part of a guilty plea in a perjury case, months after she was convicted of misdemeanor embezzlement for taking gift cards intended for poor families. The first female mayor of Baltimore, Dixon automatically ascended to the office after then-Mayor Martin O’Malley resigned to become governor. She won a full term after convincing voters of her prowess as a city manager and vision of a “cleaner, greener, safer” Baltimore.

She lost the 2016 primary to Catherine Pugh by less than two percentage points. Undeterred, she waged a write-in campaign, netting more than 50,000 votes in the general election.

After Pugh’s resignation amid a corruption scandal of her own, Scott parlayed a game of political musical chairs to become City Council president and declared a run for mayor. He juxtaposed his youth and energy to both Pugh’s and Dixon’s scandals, successfully selling a vision of a new generation of leadership to primary voters.

He is now struggling to maintain that image among the public. The Banner-Goucher survey found that 56% of respondents disapprove of the his job performance, a rise from a similar June 2022 poll, which found that 47% of respondents disapproved.

His favorability among Democratic voters is even lower: 37% of respondents have a favorable opinion of him, while 47% have a favorable opinion of Dixon.

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“You can’t slice and dice who the average person is who likes Dixon but won’t vote for her. The large majority of people who like her are already ready to cast their ballot for her, though Scott has less favorability than people willing to vote for him,” Kromer said.

Horace Mason, a 63-year-old retired corrections officer who lives in Northeast Baltimore, is one of those voters. He feels disheartened when he sees more and more boarded-up homes creep up around his neighborhood.

He’s especially frustrated when he visits Philadelphia, a city he feels is historically and economically similar to Baltimore, but with far fewer vacant homes and disrepair. “Any mayor that comes along, I don’t see no difference, even though other places have it figured out,” he said.

He places Scott among those ineffective mayors. “I think he’s really trying, but he’s not yielding results,” he said. “And a little bit of blame for this mess we’re in should go to everybody — the council, the citizens who don’t care, we all have responsibility to Baltimore. But it’s all on his shoulders at the end of the day.”

He’s well aware of Dixon’s pledge to restore the quality of city services, but he’s unsure if he can mark a ballot in her name. “To me, she’s saying, ‘The voters are just going to have to elect me because I’m better than the incumbent.’”

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Mason is still undecided, but thinks he’ll “probably go with Scott because he doesn’t have that corruption stigma.”

Jayne Miller, a former investigative reporter for WBAL who retired in 2022 after 40 years at the station, said that the electorate is so unhappy with the state of the city yet so undecided “tells you how frustrated and concerned people are with basic city services and crime.”

“There are still trash pickup problems. Violent crimes are down, but it doesn’t feel that way, especially when there are these high-profile crimes,” such as the killing of Pava LaPere and the shooting at Morgan State University, Miller said.

One poll respondent worked in City Hall when O’Malley resigned and automatically became part of the Dixon administration when she inherited his office. He asked that his name be withheld because he now holds a nonpartisan government job that prohibits him from commenting on political candidates.

“At first, there was this incredible momentum‚” he remembered of Dixon entering the mayor’s office. “It seemed like the city was on the come up and following the path of D.C., which saw turnaround despite experiencing the same problems as us.”

Her indictments devastated him: “I was so incredibly mad at Sheila,” he recalls. “Especially because the things she was nabbed for felt almost penny ante. Like, you’re blowing up all of our work over gift cards?“

The feeling of betrayal still lingered in 2020, when he voted for Scott over Dixon. He thought Scott talked a good talk, and during the early days of his term thought he did a good job handling the pandemic.

But he feels Scott has failed to live up to the progressive promises made on the campaign trail.

“You can say what you want before Election Day, but all mayors end up loving the cops and developers,” he said. “I feel the city officials just refuse to do anything actually productive in helping the city.”

Now, like many voters, he’s told pollsters he’s noncommittal and that he hopes someone else enters the race.

“But if it’s only them, I’ll vote for Sheila,” he said. “I understand why people have yet to give her a chance again, but we’ve had a string of bad mayors since she left and we never recovered.”

Candidates have until February to enter the race. Primary election day is May 14.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com