Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott nears the last year of his term facing a dip in his approval rating and a serious Democratic primary challenger in Sheila Dixon, according to a new survey from Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner.

The survey found that 56% of respondents disapprove of the mayor’s performance in office. That’s an increase from a similar June 2022 poll, which found that 47% of respondents disapproved of his tenure.

The Goucher-Banner poll surveyed 711 registered Baltimore voters by cellphone and landline from Sept. 19-23. The poll has a 3.7 percentage point margin of error.

The poll also asked 537 registered Democrats about matchups for mayor and City Council president. Those responses have a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

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

Dixon, who officially entered the primary last month and is the only major candidate up against Scott, has a favorability rating of 47% among Democrats surveyed, while Scott holds a 37% favorability rating. The primary is tantamount to the general election in deep-blue Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 10 to 1.

While not a direct comparison, 48% of city residents who responded to the Banner’s June 2022 poll said they viewed Scott favorably.

“There’s great power in incumbency, it’s easier to win a second term than a first one. But with incumbency comes accountability,” said pollster Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College. “When people are frustrated, they look to the people in charge, whether it’s fair or not, whether an individual mayor can dramatically change systemic issues or not.”

Residents who took The Banner’s poll pointed to long-standing issues Scott inherited that they nevertheless blame him for, from crime to the school system’s performance. Other issues were relatively isolated to his administration, including curbside recycling that has not been picked up regularly for years to high levels of turnover within his cabinet.

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Crime remains at the top of residents’ minds by a wide margin: 90% of residents surveyed called it a major issue, while the next most pressing issues were litter and illegal dumping at 76% and a lack of affordable housing at 74%. City services received a grade of F from one-third of respondents, while only 12% surveyed gave services a B and 0% gave an A grade.

Scott’s dip in public opinion is not unexpected, considering the negative feelings Baltimoreans have for basic quality of life issues, Kromer said.

“Even with the reduction in the murder rate, it’s still high — still hundreds of lives lost, and people feel that,” she said.

Scott’s campaign manager Nick Machado said in a statement that the mayor will make the case for reelection by focusing on the results he has achieved, “including a 16% reduction in violent crime, more education funding than any other mayor in history and leading with integrity.”

“No other candidate will be able to say they’ve accomplished all three,” he said. “Mayor Scott has never lost a city election because he understands that integrity and following through with a record of accomplishment are better indicators of success than early polls.”

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Dixon’s campaign manager Evan McLaughlin said her strong record of taking action “to fight crime and grime in Baltimore” proves she’s ready to do the job on day one.

“Baltimoreans are frustrated with trash, crime and a lack of city services and this poll shows by a wide margin, they believe Sheila Dixon would do a better job fixing these problems than the current mayor,” he said in a statement.

Scott and Dixon retain favorability within their bases

Scott, 39, narrowly came out on top of a teeming field in the 2020 Democratic primary, as a slew of issues competed for voters’ attentions, from the pandemic to police violence against Black people to the political corruption of former mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned the year before amid a corruption scandal.

He used the game of political musical chairs set off by Pugh’s departure to ascend to City Hall’s second-highest office, City Council president, after representing Northeast Baltimore’s 2nd District on the council and serving as public safety chair. Before holding his first seat in office, he served as an aide to then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Up against Dixon and then-Mayor Jack Young, Scott sold voters on the vision of a leader who had ascended the ranks of City Hall without becoming entrenched in the ways of old-school corrupt politicians. He beat Dixon by just over 2 percentage points, or a few thousand votes.

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Moses Pound, a 41-year-old data analyst for the federal government who lives in North Baltimore’s Bellona-Gittings, recalled that his wife told him to pick his jaw off the floor when Scott eked out the win.

“I thought the party structure wouldn’t let that win happen,” he said, citing Scott’s youth and the two other mayors he faced. So far, Pound thinks Scott has performed well, and that criticism of the incumbent is the name of the game. He said he plans on voting again for Scott, whose relative youth and energy stand out to him.

“In terms of character and things he wants to do with the city, he’s a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Bob Lahmann, a 61-year-old information technology project manager and retired Air Force officer who lives in Hoes Heights, said he’ll vote for Scott, who he views as committed and energetic.

“He’s young, but he hasn’t been corrupted by the system yet,” he said. A big bonus, he said dryly, is that Scott is one of the few recent mayors who was not indicted on corruption charges. “There’s an integrity piece for me,” he said. “If you’re in office, I believe that you need to be above reproach.”

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2024 will mark Dixon’s third time running for mayor since she exited the office in disgrace. In 2009 she was convicted of embezzlement after she took gift cards intended for the poor. She stepped down as mayor in 2010, after pleading guilty to perjury in a separate case.

The first woman mayor of Baltimore served more than 20 years in roles across City Hall before her resignation. She joined the council in 1987, representing West Baltimoreans until 1999, when she became City Council president. When Martin O’Malley stepped down as mayor after winning the governor’s race, Dixon automatically replaced him. She was elected to a full term as mayor in 2007.

In both 2016 and 2020, Dixon’s champions were older Black voters, a group that traditionally turns out for the primary in Baltimore, and the Banner/Goucher poll shows she largely maintained that base. Among Democrats, 60% of Black respondents view her favorably. The Sheila Base, as Dixon’s supporters are known to politicos, are loyalists — so loyal that 51,716 voters wrote in her name in the general election for mayor in 2016 after she lost the primary to Pugh. Voters of other races were less inclined toward her, though they also showed double digit support for her: 22% of white respondents and 42% of all other races had favorable opinions of Dixon.

“I just trust her,” said Yvonne Corbett, a retiree in Southeast Baltimore. “I understood what she did was wrong and she apologized to the community. I connect with her as a Black woman. You can count on her to have the finger on the pulse of our communities and children.”

Corbett gave Scott credit for trying to tackle systemic issues. “I know certain things can’t happen overnight. As an 84-year-old woman, I know that,” she said. “But I feel like he, along with everybody else, all they do is talk about crime. Trust me, we know there’s crime. And when you focus only on crime, you ignore things like the school system.”

She attributed high rates of violent crime in Baltimore to poorly educated and disconnected families. “We’re not focusing on education and the family. Whoever is mayor needs to focus on those two things, and that’s why I support Ms. Dixon,” Corbett said.

Scott scratched out his 2020 win over Dixon thanks to balanced support from both Black and white voters across all age groups, a trend he largely maintains according to the Banner poll. Among Democrats, 45% of white respondents view him favorably, compared to 33% of Black respondents and 47% of all other races.

Scott and Dixon also see differences in support depending on a voter’s education: Scott has a nearly 2 to 1 advantage among voters who completed at least a bachelor’s degree, while Dixon holds a similarly large advantage among voters who completed an associate’s degree or did not finish college.

A potential head-to-head after a few crowded cycles

Recent citywide races have featured large fields with more than two competitive candidates: Scott and Dixon netted only 57% of the vote the first time they competed against each other in 2020, meaning a large portion of Democrats who cast primary ballots that cycle did not vote for the main players this season. Nearly four years later, many voters say they plan on voting for someone else — even if they can’t name an alternative to Dixon or Scott.

When Democratic respondents were asked who they would vote for if the primary were held today, 27% said they would reelect Scott, 39% said they would vote for Dixon, and 23% said they would vote for someone else. Another 11% were unsure or refused to answer.

The poll probed undecided voters further, asking them if the mayoral race was just between Scott and Dixon, “which candidate currently has the best chance of earning your vote?”

Voters split fairly evenly: Scott picked up 36% of those who were initially noncommittal, while Dixon netted 33%. A chunk of voters still remained uncommitted: 21% said neither candidate or that they wouldn’t vote. Another 10% were unsure or refused to answer.

Who that other candidate might be remains to be seen; no other viable candidates have declared, though a new candidate could drastically reshape the race. Scott and Dixon led a crowded pack of Democratic mayoral hopefuls in 2020. In 2016, Dixon earned 34.8% of the vote, coming in second to Catherine Pugh’s 36.6%. Elizabeth Embry, who is now a state delegate, netted 11.7% of the vote.

Bob Wallace, a businessman who ran against Scott in the 2020 general election and netted 20% of the vote as an independent, has said he anticipates running in the Democratic primary this year but has yet to change his campaign’s party affiliation. He did not respond to an interview request. Campaign finance records from January, the most recent available, show he reported had $13,181 on hand.

Wendy Bozel, a city schools teacher and president of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, has filed to run in the Democratic primary. Candidates have until Feb. 3 to file with the state board of elections.

Other potential candidates viewed as more serious threats by the Dixon and Scott campaigns have declined to run or have yet to comment publicly on their plans. At various points this year, internal campaign polls have asked likely Democratic voters whether they would consider voting for City Comptroller Bill Henry, Councilman Eric Costello and former WBAL investigative reporter Jayne Miller for mayor; all three have declined to throw their names in the hat.

Thiru Vignarajah won 11.5% of the mayoral Democratic primary in 2020 and 30% of the Baltimore State’s Attorney primary in 2022. He eschewed filing detailed finance report in January, telling the state his campaign did not intend to receive contributions or make expenditures totaling $1,000. He declined to say whether he will run, saying he’s often asked to jump in the race but that he’s not currently focused on next year’s elections.

“If we’re serious about tackling crime, corruption, incompetence, then Baltimore deserves better than choosing between the lesser of two evils,” Vignarajah said. “I’m just worried that one choice moves us backwards and the other is in over his head.”

Voters looking for alternatives or who are undecided are likely those the Scott and Dixon campaigns will target in the months leading up to the election — and polling data suggests they are a highly varied group.

“At this point in time, undecideds are a really diverse group, in terms of race, age, gender and education,” said Kromer.

To win, Dixon will likely need to target voters who historically haven’t been willing to give her another chance: namely, young, white, or college-educated voters. Scott, meanwhile, has performed better among more diverse coalitions, but older Black residents generally have the city’s highest voting turnout — and heavily favor Dixon.

Darlene Kearney of Lauraville thinks Baltimore is headed in the wrong direction. The crime has caused her to seriously think about leaving Baltimore before, but it’s always been home to her and her family. Kearney, who works for a medical publishing company, is unmoved by both Scott and Dixon and views them both very unfavorably.

“I don’t care for his values and what he promised did not come through for me,” she said. “Dixon, it’s merely because of what she previously did. I just don’t trust her. I just want someone fresh.”

But if her choices are only Scott or Dixon, she’ll cast a ballot for the latter. “It will be hard for me, but that’s my choice. At the end of the day, she has more experience than what Brandon has,” she said.

Andrew Grossman, a 42-year-old software engineer who lives in Riverside, is unsold on either candidate, but said he’ll probably vote for Scott if the field remains unchanged.

He says Scott strikes him as good at convening of stakeholders, with a genuine interest in different communities and making the city more livable for every resident. But he doesn’t have a solid grasp of what the mayor has accomplished in his tenure so far. “I try to be a realist,” he said. “These things are complicated and I recognize how difficult it is to make progress with limited resources.

Grossman, who grew up in Pikesville and moved to the city as an adult, is struck by how often he sees lifelong Baltimoreans praising Dixon’s constituent services and get-it-done attitude. But he’s wary of her criminal history, especially against Scott, who he views as an ethical person.

“Surely, she’s not a superhero or the only one person who could do this,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct that Thiru Vignarajah ran for Baltimore State's Attorney in 2022.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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