Mayor Brandon Scott has gained significant ground with voters over the last several months in Baltimore’s competitive Democratic mayoral primary race, according to a new survey from Goucher College Poll and The Baltimore Banner.

The race is closely contested between Scott and former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon among likely Democratic voters, the poll found. But Scott’s support has surged in recent months.

About 40% of likely Democratic voters polled said they would reelect Scott for a second term as mayor, while 32% said they would support former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who finished second four years ago in a crowded Democratic contest. Former deputy attorney general of Maryland Thiru Vignarajah had 11% support, and 3% said they would support businessman and entrepreneur Bob Wallace, who ran as an independent in 2020.

That’s a 13 percentage point gain in Scott’s support since a September Goucher-Banner poll of the mayor’s race. In that poll, 39% of Democratic voters polled said they supported Dixon while 27% said they supported Scott.

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Scott’s favorability rating has surged by 18 percentage points since September — another sign that the dynamics of the race have shifted in his favor. His job performance approval has also grown to 46% now from 37% this past fall, while the percentage of city voters who disapprove of him has also declined, to 47% from 56%.

The poll was conducted over a five-day period in early April, about a week after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. The poll reached 440 likely Democratic voters and has a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

In deep-blue Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 10 to 1 margin, May’s primary race is likely to determine the outcome of November’s general election. Another 9 candidates are running in the Democratic primary and three contenders are facing off in the Republican primary.

Scott’s inroads with voters could be due to a range of factors, including the city’s progress reducing homicides and finishing 2023 with fewer than 300 for the first time since 2015. He also can tout a growing economy and robust employment rate.

“It’s clear that Baltimoreans are connecting with Mayor Scott’s vision to improve public safety the right way, build a future that works for all residents, and lead our city in difficult moments,” Scott campaign manager Nicholas Machado said Thursday. “But the only poll that matters is on Election Day, and that’s where our focus is.”

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The January entry of Vignarajah, who has previously run competitive citywide races, also likely factors into the changing landscape.

Voters seem to have solidified their picks over the last several months, too. Last September about one-third of respondents said they wanted another candidate or were undecided. In the most recent poll, just 10% said they were undecided.

Mayoral candidates Thiru Vignarajah, Brandon Scott, Shelia Dixon and Bob Wallace at a debate in March. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

Roland Park resident and retiree Debby Jencks said she can acknowledge that Scott’s tenure has not always been rosy. She pointed to the city government’s staffing woes as well as the revolving door of senior staffers who have left city government.

But Jencks, 79, said she approves of his efforts to clamp down on the city’s vacant housing problem, including his partnership with the Greater Baltimore Committee and BUILD, the interfaith advocacy organization. The coalition unveiled an ambitious and expensive platform late last year that calls for more state aid and philanthropic donations to help revitalize distressed areas of the city.

Scott is “doing a perfectly fine job,” Jencks said.

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The incumbent is “clearly” in a better position now than he was six months ago, said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, noting that more people are giving him a positive rating than a negative one.

“I wouldn’t say he is, by any stretch of the imagination, a shoo-in,” Kromer said. “But he has made some considerable gains.”

Kromer said it’s also possible that Scott’s response to the Key Bridge calamity has resonated with voters: Of likely Democratic voters polled, 70% said he has done a “good” or “excellent” job in the aftermath.

“Polls are snapshots,” Kromer said. “He’s an executive leader in a time of crisis, and you can’t really discount the role of the bridge collapse.”

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon speaks at a press conference in support of now-City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates on July 25, 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Scott, though, faces a formidable challenger in Dixon, who stepped in as mayor in 2006 after her predecessor Martin O’Malley won the Maryland governorship. She won a full term in the following year’s city election and is credited for ushering in a period of lower homicides and greater emphasis on community policing.

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Following a 12-count indictment in January 2009 for allegations including perjury, theft and fraudulent misappropriations, Dixon was convicted of embezzlement later that year for a case involving stolen gift cards intended for the poor. She resigned in 2010 as part of a plea deal reached with prosecutors for a separate perjury case.

More than a decade later, Dixon remains popular among her base: In this latest poll, she received a 52% favorability rating among those surveyed, with 43% giving her an unfavorable rating. Older voters tend to feel more positively about Dixon, the poll found, and she also has an advantage over Scott with Black voters, non-four-year college graduates and voters who consider themselves conservative.

Many of Dixon’s supporters — including Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who endorsed her publicly earlier this week — say the city fared better under her watch.

“I felt that when Sheila was the mayor, the city was very much more under control,” said Tia Harris, an IT worker and Democrat who lives in West Baltimore’s Uplands.

Harris, 48, said she has concerns about the city’s high property tax rate and shrinking population. Scott’s leadership has been less detail-oriented and more reactive than she would like, Harris added.

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“I believe Sheila is in a different place now in her political career, that she will walk a different line to do what’s best for the city,” she said.

Others said they recalled Dixon’s strong reputation running city government, which they said delivered better services under her watch.

“She’s a better manager,” said Ted Sheppy, 52, a Democrat who lives near Patterson Park.

In a Thursday statement, Dixon campaign spokesperson Luca Amayo said the former mayor will continue to build on her momentum through Election Day, and that the enthusiasm for her “on the ground” is surging.

On the campaign trail, Scott, a Park Heights native who has served in city government for more than a decade, has sought to paint himself as the straight-edged contrast to Dixon’s more complicated past.

Stressing the return to stability and consistency in City Hall, Scott said a vote against him would drive the city backward. If elected, he would be the first mayor to advance to a second term since O’Malley won reelection in 2004. Three of the previous five mayors have resigned prior to the completion of their terms, including former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned in 2019 and later pled guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy charges related to a self-dealing scandal during her tenure.

Scott has landed a number of key endorsements in the race, including from AFSCME Maryland, the state’s largest union for public employees, as well as from U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin. Health care worker union 1199SEIU endorsed Scott Thursday along with 32BJ SEIU, which represents property service workers, and SEIU Local 500, which represents college, university and public school employees as well as nonprofits.

Survey data shows that Scott tends to fare better than Dixon with more affluent voters, as well as those with degrees from four-year colleges. A majority of white voters found him favorable, and a whopping 80% of voters who consider themselves progressive also found him favorable.

One supporter, West Baltimore’s Henry Kenney III, said Scott is the most qualified among those running.

Kenney, 27, who works for a nonprofit organization, said he’s seen Scott out in the community and putting more money into social services, including more financial resources for low-income families.

“I’m more for putting into the community,” Kenney said. He would like to see even more community programs get funded and acknowledged the crime rates could be better.

Still, Kenney said, “I supported Scott when he first went into office. His strengths are really connecting with the community.”

Jencks, the Scott supporter, said she could not support Dixon given her record in office but said it’s possible she has reformed since her plea deal. She said she has not considered any other candidates in the mayor’s race and had a negative impression of Vignarajah based on anecdotes from people who had worked for him. Vignarajah has been accused of harassing and being abusive to employees who worked for him.

Vignarajah has said that he hopes he has demonstrated through his work his ability to lead and fight for the city. On Thursday, he said the poll provided a window into a picture of “what was,” rather than “what will be.”

“Many voters still think there are only two candidates in the race,” he said. “Over the next month, we’ll change that.”

Attorney Thiru Vignarajah speaks at a press conference on Feb. 20 at Edmondson Village Shopping Center after the family of slain teen Deanta Dorsey was targeted in a shooting.
Attorney Thiru Vignarajah speaks at a press conference on Feb. 20 at Edmondson Village Shopping Center after the family of slain teen Deanta Dorsey was targeted in a shooting. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Money has poured into the mayor’s race, and the latest campaign finance reports show that Vignarajah, who is using Baltimore’s new public financing system, has raised more than Dixon and Scott combined since he entered the race in January. The system multiplies small donations if candidates agree to forgo contributions larger than $150 and donations from unions, corporations and political action committees.

While Dixon has outraised Scott since the last filing deadline in January, with almost $273,000 compared to Scott’s $231,000, the incumbent has raised substantially more over the course of the campaign cycle. He has $908,000 in the bank as of the April 9 filing deadline, nearly double Dixon’s $497,000.

Vignarajah has nearly $700,000 in the bank, including a more-than $150,000 contribution from the city fund that he qualified for over the weekend. That means the final weeks of the campaign are likely to be heated as he puts the money to use.

“We’ll deploy our formidable war chest to educate the tens of thousands of voters who are barely paying attention right now that they don’t have to choose between corruption and incompetence,” he said on Thursday.

Oliver resident Kellie Felder has gotten to know Vignarajah through her community activism and says she’s impressed with his perspective and efforts. She plans to vote for him for mayor.

Felder said she worked with Vignarajah to lobby police about crime concerns at the Edmondson Village Shopping Center and to support seniors who were at risk of losing their homes to tax sales.

“He really has the pulse of the people and that is rare in a mayor,” said Felder, who work in community nonprofits. Both Dixon and Scott have had a chance and didn’t impress her.

Vignarajah’s decision to use public financing for his campaign underscores that he won’t be unduly influenced by business interests, she said.

Kromer, of Goucher College, said Vignarajah’s entry into the mayoral primary has so far made the race more competitive — for Scott and Dixon.

“His entrance has changed the dynamics for Dixon and Scott,” Kromer said. “But the question now, is: Does he have the ability to change the dynamics for himself, or will this be another third-place finish?”

Dixon and Scott are both being supported by super PACS, which can raise unlimited amounts of money to use for advocacy for or against candidates. The Scott-supporting PACs have not reported any donations. Among Dixon’s top supporters are Baltimore County developer John “Jack” Luetkemeyer Jr. of Continental Realty Corporation, and David Smith, the executive chairman of the national TV network Sinclair Inc. and the new owner of The Baltimore Sun.

Meanwhile, Bob Wallace, a wealthy businessman who is running on the Democratic ticket this year, has around $410,000 on hand, according to his April filing, largely thanks to loans he has made to himself. So far this cycle, Wallace has loaned himself about $350,000 — including $150,000 he loaned to himself on April 1 — and has a balance of outstanding loans totaling more than $695,000.

Early voting in the Democratic primary begins May 2. Primary Day is May 14.

This article was updated to correct Luca Amayo's job title and comparisons between the September poll and April poll. A graphic was also updated to correct the date of the poll; it was taken in September.

Baltimore Banner reporters Jess Nocera, Justin Fenton and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.