Just days before Boston voters narrow the field of mayoral hopefuls from 12 to two in the preliminary election, a new WBUR poll suggests a top tier of candidates is taking shape (PDFs -- topline, crosstabs).
City Councilor John Connolly has 15 percent of the vote, according to the survey. And state Rep. Marty Walsh is second at 12 percent.
A cluster of three other candidates — former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley and City Councilor Felix Arroyo — sits just behind the leaders.
Several of the contenders are separated by less than the poll's margin of error of 4.4 percent. And with one in five voters still undecided, the race remains fluid.
But with two other recent public polls showing Connolly in the lead — and Walsh, Golar Richie and Conley close behind — a once inscrutable contest is getting a little easier to read.
"We do have enough to say who some of the leading candidates are, for sure," said Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the survey for WBUR.
The WBUR poll suggests Connolly's focus on the Boston Public Schools has paid dividends. Education is at the top of the list of voter concerns. And he has a sizable lead among voters who named the schools as the city's most pressing challenge.
The poll also shows the city councilor at-large has built a broad cross-section of support. The survey carved up Boston into four regions and Connolly was the only candidate to register double-digit support in all of them.
Walsh, by contrast, seems to be drawing strength from his home base. He had 25 percent of the vote in an area including East Boston, South Boston and his native Dorchester. But he didn't crack double digits in any of the other three regions.
Until recently, the public didn't seem much engaged in the race.
Mayor Thomas Menino's decision to step down after 20 years in office brought a swarm of contenders. And this summer, an overwhelmed electorate appeared more focused on the beach — and the James "Whitey" Bulger trial — than the campaign.
But Labor Day has come and gone. And the poll of 487 likely voters, conducted Sept. 14-16, suggests Boston has finally tuned in to the election.
A Boston Herald poll from July found four in 10 voters hadn't picked a candidate. That number is now half as large.
And the remaining undecided — if still a sizable bloc — are not necessarily ill-informed, Koczela said. Indeed, the poll found they are about as familiar with the mayoral candidates as those who have picked a hopeful. It's just that with a dozen candidates in the race, Koczela said, there are a lot of choices to sort through.
"For awhile, the story was that people really hadn't tuned in to this race," he said. "I think people really have now."
Golar Richie, who has been gaining ground in recent polls, finished third in the WBUR survey with 10 percent. Conley and Arroyo both came in at 8 percent.
Further back were City Councilor Mike Ross at 6 percent, City Councilor Rob Consalvo at 5 percent, Codman Square Health Center founder Bill Walczak at 4 percent and former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative executive director John Barros at 3 percent.
The poll came out of the field the day before The Boston Globe endorsed Barros and Connolly in the preliminary.
City Councilor Charles Yancey, who is running for mayor and city council simultaneously, got 1 percent of the vote. TOUCH 106.1 FM co-founder Charles Clemons and Republican David Wyatt registered less than 1 percent.
But if the WBUR survey provides some general outline of the pecking order — particularly when combined with recent Boston Globe and Boston Herald polls showing similar results -- assigning hard-and-fast ranks to candidates separated by just two or three points is a difficult exercise, Koczela warned.
The composition of the electorate on Tuesday, or particularly robust ground games, could move the numbers, he added.
The survey suggests race and gender are playing significant roles in voter choice. And both trends converge in the case of Golar Richie, who has made considerable gains in recent polls.
The only woman in the race, she has the support of 14 percent of women and 5 percent of men — the largest gender gap for any candidate in the race. And she is the most popular candidate among black voters by a wide margin.
Fred Bell, a processing clerk with the city's transportation department, said he was considering voting for Barros, but leaning toward Richie. "She would be the first black woman to be mayor," said Bell, who is black. "That'd go down in history."
The racial trends don't end with Golar Richie. Connolly and Walsh lead by substantial margins among whites. And Arroyo, the only Latino in the race, appears to be getting strong support from Latino voters.
"I'll probably vote for Felix Arroyo, because he does a lot of stuff for the community, especially the Latino community around here," said Angela Castaneda, picking up her children at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain Wednesday afternoon.
The WBUR poll also asked about issues that have come up in the mayoral election, including a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.
Seventy percent think the whole city should vote on whether to build the project, with 26 percent saying only East Boston residents should have a say.
The electorate is closely divided on whether there should be a casino at the horse track, with 47 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.
Boston voters, the survey found, are tough graders. Just 4 percent gave the Boston Public Schools an "A" grade. Twenty-six percent gave them a "B", 38 percent a "C," 14 percent a "D" and 5 percent an "F."
That may help to explain the voters' penchant for charter schools.
Sixty-one percent say the cap on charter schools should be lifted, with just 22 percent saying it should be kept in place — a split that bodes well for candidates like Connolly and Conley who have backed charter school expansion.
The poll found the departing Menino is still popular. Seventy-seven percent said they had a favorable opinion of him against just 12 percent who had an unfavorable view. But voters do see room for improvement.
The survey asked whether the environment, roads and traffic, the availability of good-paying jobs, K-12 education, the availability of affordable housing, race relations and public transit had gotten better, worse, or stayed about the same during Menino's 20 years in office.
The mayor got good marks on the environment and race relations. But he didn't fare as well on roads and traffic or affordable housing.
Thirty-three percent said the roads and traffic had gotten better during Menino's tenure, versus 35 percent who said it had gotten worse. Thirty-seven percent said the availability of affordable housing had gotten better, while 35 percent said it had gotten worse.
The mayoral race looks about the same — if a little tighter — when only committed voters are taken into account and those leaning toward a particular candidate are tossed out.
Connolly has 12 percent without leaners, Walsh has 11 percent, Golar Richie has 9 percent, Arroyo has 8 percent and Conley has 7 percent.
Fred Thys contributed to this report.
This article was originally published on September 19, 2013.
This program aired on September 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.