New polling shows Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and State Senator John Whitmire are neck-and-neck in Houston's upcoming mayoral race, while the remaining 12 challengers lack broad support. In the likely event of a December runoff, current data suggests Whitmire would win out.
As of this month, the 2023 Houston mayoral election is effectively a two-candidate race, according to a recent public opinion survey by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. Whitmire currently has the support of 34 percent of polled likely voters, while Jackson Lee trails just behind with 32 percent. Just over one fifth of remaining voters are undecided.
Meanwhile, the next six candidates – Gilbert Garcia, Lee Kaplan, Robert Gallegos, MJ Khan, Derrick Broze and Robin Williams – each garner between one and three percent of the remaining vote.
"We expected to see Jackson Lee and Whitmire as the frontrunners, but what was a little surprising was the gap between them and all of the other candidates," said Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University and senior research fellow at the Hobby School. "We were thinking at least one or more of them would be in the high single digits."
MORE: Mark Jones and Renee Cross discuss the voter poll on Houston Matters
Jones attributes the discrepancy partially to a lack of name recognition among the other mayoral candidates.
"What really pops out is the fact that, other than Whitmire and Jackson Lee, a large majority of likely voters don't know anything about the other candidates," said Jones.
Jackson Lee and Whitmire not only each have significant name recognition; they each have a large degree of favorable name recognition among a strong base of supporters.
Still, Jones said, if the current candidates stay in the race and lesser-known contenders grow voter awareness and support, the most likely outcome is a runoff election.
In the event of a runoff between Jackson Lee and Whitmire, current polling suggests Whitmire has the upper hand. While Black Houstonians and Democrats tend to favor Jackson Lee, Whitmire garners stronger support from most other demographics, including white and Latino likely voters.
Jones said, while Jackson Lee has the solid support of her base, she is unlikely to pick up many new voters in a runoff, while Whitmire appears to have more bipartisan support.
While the majority of Republican likely voters indicated they would vote for Whitmire in a runoff with Jackson Lee, 28 percent of Democrats also said they would cast their ballots for Whitmire.
Furthermore, 44 percent of likely voters indicated they would never vote for Jackson Lee, while just 13 percent indicated they would never vote for Whitmire.
"A runoff election is where Jackson Lee's low ceiling and high negatives really come back to haunt her," said Jones. "At the present time, as long as Whitmire’s negatives stay as low as they are, it seems pretty tough for Jackson Lee to have a route to victory in a second-round runoff."
This year's mayoral election is Nov. 7.