Field for S.B. mayor's race firming up

By Jack Colwell, The South Bend Tribune 

Opinion

SOUTH BEND--A professional poll conducted in mid-March showed Pete Buttigieg and Ryan Dvorak in a virtual tie for the Democratic nomination for mayor of South Bend, each with about 30 percent of the vote.

The other two active candidates for the nomination, Mike Hamann and Barrett Berry, trailed well off the pace. But nearly a quarter of the 400 likely Democratic voters surveyed were undecided.

The poll was conducted by the Feldman Group, a national political consulting firm, and was paid for by the Buttigieg campaign. It was a professional sampling, not one of those “push” polls designed to spread negative messages about an opponent and influence the findings. The statistical margin for error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The poll means a lot.

But not as much as it might seem.

First, it shows what already was becoming clear, that Buttigieg, the former Rhodes Scholar who touts his private enterprise economic development experience, has momentum in the race, even though many voters still have trouble with pronunciation (Boota-judge) of his name. He is getting endorsements from prominent 

Democrats, some of whom were initially leaning toward other candidates. And he is raising by far the most in campaign funding.

Adding to the momentum is the endorsement of Buttigieg on Friday by the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County. It came after a two-hour public “conversation” with the candidates and other evaluation.

In effect, the Chamber agreed with Buttigieg’s contention that, while he is the youngest candidate, age 29, he has the best credentials for mayor - education, economic development experience with a large consulting firm and understanding of innovative approaches to city problems.

Wait.

Momentum now doesn’t necessarily mean a May 3 Democratic primary victory.

Dvorak, a state representative in the walkout by House Democrats, is back. And Dvorak and the other Democrats legislators got a hero’s welcome from protesters opposing the House Republican majority’s agenda. Being seen as standing up for labor and teachers and frustrating political plans of Gov. Mitch Daniels could be a plus for Dvorak in the Democratic primary.

Still, Dvorak, with by far the highest name recognition as the race began, is in trouble if Buttigieg already has caught up, as the poll indicates. The Dvorak name has been magic on the ballot. Both Ryan and his father, Prosecutor Mike Dvorak, won decisively again last fall.

Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign manager, who agreed to provide full details about the portion of the poll involving the question of voter support, said Buttigieg actually was ahead in percentages, 32 to 30. But with the margin for error, the race could only be described as a virtual tie at the time of polling.

County Councilman Hamann, though shown far back at 12 percent, has since the poll got his campaign rolling with billboards and a flurry of yard signs. His campaign had seemed to stall earlier, in part because of some defections to Buttigieg in organization support on which he counted. But with nearly a quarter of the vote found to be undecided, there is time and opportunity for Hamann to improve on that mid-March snapshot of support.

Berry, shown at 4 percent in the poll, began the campaign as an unknown politically in South Bend. He cites impressive credentials in federal government experience during the Clinton administration and has been thoughtful on the issues. The African-American minister hopes to make it a real four-candidate race and then win with strong African-American support if the other three split pretty evenly.

How the African-American vote splits will be important.

Whether anyone can tap the potential power of the Latino vote also could be a key. Buttigieg, who speaks fluent Spanish, hopes to have an advantage there.

Also, how many voters who usually support Republicans will vote in the Democratic primary? Because the winner of the Democratic primary will be regarded as certain to be elected mayor in the fall, and because of crucial decisions for a new mayor on the city’s future, some Republicans, maybe quite a few, will seek a voice in the Democratic primary this time.

The Republican nominee is expected to be Wayne Curry, who held his own in the Chamber “conversation” with the candidates.