Most Baltimoreans get their news through TV and find local media a fair, accurate source of information that will help determine how they vote, according to a new survey from Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner.
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.
It found that 65% of city voters say they trust that information from Baltimore-based media is fair and accurate “some” or “a lot” of the time. Just over half of voters said that local news media will help determine their vote choices “somewhat” or “a great deal.”
How local media outlets will cover Baltimore candidates — and how candidates will choose to engage or disengage with different outlets — will likely play a noteworthy role in the mayoral election, said Jayne Miller, a former investigative reporter for WBAL who retired in 2022 after 40 years at the station.
The Goucher-Banner poll asked 537 registered Democrats about matchups for mayor. Among those Democrats surveyed, 39% said they would vote for former Mayor Sheila Dixon and 27% said they would vote for incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott if the election were held today. Another 23% prefer “some other candidate.” Those responses have a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.
“People have had lots of exposure to Brandon and everyone knows Sheila, for the most part,” Miller said. “For this poll to show a big chunk of people who want a third option demonstrates a really frustrated electorate.”
As the incumbent mayor, Scott gets the bulk of the local market’s political coverage, a benefit that guarantees reporters will attend his news conferences, giving him the opportunity to tout accomplishments and keep his name recognition high.
“Media strategy in Baltimore elections, for a good part of my time covering it, wasn’t that sophisticated,” said David Zurawik, a media analyst for CNN who previously spent 30 years as a media critic at The Baltimore Sun. “People would buy TV ads at the most popular channels and try to keep their name in the press.”
Dixon has departed from that standard strategy. For the last several months, she has made appearances as an in-studio guest on WBFF Fox45, the flagship station of the locally owned and operated Sinclair Broadcast Group, which runs more than 180 channels across the country and is known for conservative leanings. Fox45 airs a steady rhythm of criticism against Baltimore’s incumbent Democrats and school leaders; it has received recognition for coverage of the latter.
Sinclair’s founder and executive chairman, Cockeysville businessman David Smith, put hundreds of thousands of dollars toward a ballot initiative group that in 2022 got a successful charter amendment on city ballots to limit politicians to two terms in office; that group is now pursuing a charter amendment to reduce the size of the City Council.
Smith family members have contributed large sums to political candidates. A super PAC that supported efforts for Baltimore City State’s Attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah in 2022 was funded mostly by four of Smith’s grandchildren.
The large majority of city politicians avoid engaging with the station; Scott will often respond to questions from Fox45 reporters with critiques on the lines of questioning from “your station.” Dixon’s advisers said she’s not specifically cozying up to Fox45 and that she’ll appear on any program that will have her. Indeed, she’s made appearances on WJZ, WBAL and WYPR, and she accepts interview requests from The Banner. She published an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun on the day she entered the race, apologizing for the corruption that led her to depart the mayor’s office in 2010.
A consistent base of older Black voters have given Dixon sturdy returns for two runs for mayor in 2016 and 2020, despite her resignation, which was part of a plea deal on state perjury and embezzlement charges.
“Sheila didn’t exactly leave the office on a high note, and many longtime supporters of hers believe she was railroaded out of City Hall because she’s a Black woman, which I would not see resonating with the white conservative audience you might think of if you were to imagine a zealous Fox45 viewer,” said Marc Steiner, a public radio host known for his former programs on WYPR and WEAA.
“To go to Fox45 is almost antithetical to who her base is. But if you step back and look at it, strategically it’s brilliant,” he continued. “Their audience hates the mayor. They can’t stand him. And she can appear on their screen and tout her record as the amazing city manager and operator she was.”
The Banner-Goucher poll suggests that Fox45′s audience is buying what the station sells: 55% of poll respondents who watch the station and plan to vote in the Democratic primary said they will cast their ballot for Dixon. Only a quarter of respondents who watch WBAL said they would vote for her, while 37% said they would vote for Scott.
“It will absolutely play a role in this election if Fox45 positions her as its candidate,” Zurawik of CNN said. He added that he doesn’t think there are that many voters who are so “anti-Sinclair” that they would turn away from Dixon due to her Fox45 appearances, or if Smith family members were to donate to a super PAC that was formed to support her.
“It wouldn’t compare to the support she’s getting from having the relationship with them,” Zurawik said.
Miller, formerly of WBAL, said that Scott’s guarantee of airtime on every station, including Fox45, that comes with his incumbency still presents an advantage that Dixon does not have.
“But when Brandon is on TV, especially on Fox45, he often responds to the media defensively. It’ll be interesting to see, if he remains on the defense, how will that come across to the undecided voter,” she said.
Meanwhile, voters who prefer print and digital publications such as The Sun and The Banner are a toss-up compared to those who only watch television news: 34% said they would vote for Dixon, 23% said they would vote for Scott and another 31% are undecided.
Dixon is still hitting media that is popular with her base. She recently hired Gabe Ortis, the host of WEAA’s “Two Way Talk,” to serve as a campaign spokesman. Ortis has said he will not host episodes about the mayor’s race.
“I think hitting those two places are the votes she has to get to,” Steiner said of her Fox45 and WEAA connection. The radio station is operated through the historically Black college Morgan State University; its call letters stand for “We Educate African Americans.”
“There’s always a high voter turnout in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and certain middle-class Black neighborhoods, and that’s the nut that has to be cracked — for her or Brandon,” Steiner said.