A new poll in the race for Salt Lake City mayor released Thursday indicates that the wide lead former state Sen. Jim Dabakis has long enjoyed has narrowed dramatically ahead of this month’s primary election.
The survey, conducted this week by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, shows Dabakis with 21% support and a 4-point lead over his closest contender, state Sen. Luz Escamilla — a result that’s well within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.
“I feel terrific about the effort we’ve been putting in,” Dabakis said of the results. “We always knew that it would get tight and we expect a long run.”
The survey shows that any of the eight candidates in the race “still has a fighting chance,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute. The two mayoral hopefuls with the most votes in the Aug. 13 primary will face off in the general election in November.
With polls showing her cutting into what in June was a 17-point lead for Dabakis, Escamilla said the results are “great news” for her campaign. “We understand it’s a crowded race and we don’t take any vote for granted,” she said. “We’ve been very happy to see that consistency of leading the pack of everyone trying to get out of the primary election.”
While Escamilla attributes the closing gap between her and Dabakis to hard work and substantive policy ideas, Dabakis insinuated it may also be a result of free advertising from a political action committee linked to Reagan Outdoor Advertising. Escamilla, businessman David Ibarra and former Pioneer Park Coalition Executive Director David Garbett have all been the beneficiaries of free billboards so far in the race.
“Hundreds of thousands of free billboards thrown in by a special interest has had an effect,” Dabakis said. “I think that’s definitely had an effect. When somebody is spending really unlimited amounts of money, it has an effect.”
Escamilla said she recognizes a need to utilize “all the tools in the toolbox” to get her name out to voters and increase her name recognition outside of the Senate district where voters know her better.
“He’s utilizing billboards himself,” she noted. “I’ve always utilized billboards in my campaign. You see that in what we’re reporting in terms of our expenses as a campaign, so those I find to be effective and they help. But at the end of the day, voters are seeing substance in the conversation.”
Trailing Escamilla — within the margin of error to take her place in second — is Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who garnered 13% of support from the 444 likely Salt Lake City voters who were surveyed.
Mendenhall said she feels the poll reflects the “great amount of momentum” around her campaign and shows it’s “anybody’s race at this point.” She also feels good about her chances of getting through the primary with city-based experience she said Dabakis and Escamilla don’t bring to the table.
“This poll and others we’ve seen put two state legislators at the top of the ticket,” she said, “and I’m hearing an incredible amount of feedback from the community that we’re tired of having state legislators come to run the city, and that people are ready for a city-based candidate to be an option on the general election.”
Salt Lake City’s last two mayors, Ralph Becker and Jackie Biskupski, both made their political names in the Utah Legislature before turning their attention to City Hall.
The largest portion of voters polled, some 28%, remain undecided about whom they will support in the race — even with ballots already mailed. That could be a byproduct, in part, of the challenges of engaging residents outside a presidential election year.
“It can often be difficult for voters to learn about candidates in primary elections, particularly in a crowded field,” Perry, of the Hinckley Institute, wrote in an email. “This poll shows that name ID is key, but there are still important groups that haven’t made up their minds, like women, young voters, and Republicans. Capturing these undecided voters is critical.”
Engaging those undecided voters is a large part of many candidates’ campaign strategies moving forward.
Garbett, a former staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, generated 9% of support in the poll. And while he said those results show there’s “a lot of work to do still,” he believes he remains competitive in the waning weeks of the race.
“It looks like [the poll] shows that this portion of the city that is undecided is going to drive the outcome here,” he said. “There are a lot of people still making up their minds, and essentially our work continues. We’ll try to persuade as many of them to come over as we can.”
Former City Councilman Stan Penfold, who received 5% support, echoed those sentiments, noting that he’s heard from residents as he’s been knocking doors that some have yet to turn in their ballots while they decide between him and one or two other candidates.
“We’ve been getting really good response from the neighborhood when we go out and talk to people,” he said. “It surprises me that we’re kind of down there toward the bottom, but it seems like it’s going well in the canvassing we’re doing. As I’m chatting to people it seems really positive.”
“I don’t believe we’re at 6%, and I don’t believe we’ll finish at 6%,” he said. “I strongly believe we’re in second place, according to the statistics that we have.”
Ibarra, who declined to provide his own numbers to The Tribune, also noted that he doesn’t plan to change his strategy moving into the final weeks of the election. He plans, he said, to continue knocking doors and working “75 to 80 hours a week.”
“We’re excited about getting to the finish line and going on to the general,” he said.
The Tribune-Hinckley poll was conducted from Monday through Wednesday and employed a mix of phone calls to landlines (35%) and cellphones (56%), as well as an online portion (9%). Candidate Rainer Huck, a retired electrical engineer, received 1% of the vote and Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, polled at 0% with the support of a single survey respondent.