Early voting has already started, meaning time is running out for candidates to separate themselves from their opponents. David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, anticipated that “there are going to be some attacks” during the back-to-back debates Wednesday night and Thursday night.
“This is definitely the time to figure out who your most threatening rival is and make the case against them,” he said.
The pressure is on the field’s five major candidates — City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Wu, Acting Mayor Janey, and John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief. The forums present perhaps the two last opportunities to woo undecided voters en masse. The top two vote-getters in the preliminary will move on to the Nov. 2 general.
The state of the race has crystalized in recent days, with a new poll from the Globe and Suffolk University showing Wu with a strong lead over her competitors with 31 percent support of likely voters, putting her more than 10 percentage points ahead of her next rival, which is outside the poll’s margin of error.
Three other contenders are bunched together in the tight race for second place, which has led to some fireworks in recent days, after what had been a largely civil campaign. The poll found Janey with 20 percent, Essaibi George at 19 percent, and Campbell at 18 percent — all effectively neck-and-neck given the poll’s margin or error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. Barros trailed far behind at 3 percent.
The tight margins for second mean the undecideds — about 8 percent of the electorate, according to the recent poll — very much matter. In turn, that means the debates could also very much matter, according to Paul Watanabe, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor.
“Everything matters,” he said. “Every door that’s knocked, every phone call.”
The poll showed that a majority of respondents had yet to meet a single mayoral candidate. Some from that cohort may tune in to the debates to get a read on the contenders, said Watanabe. The candidates’ demeanor, debate style, and substance of their arguments will all be taken into consideration. Making distinctions between candidates will be crucial, something that may lead to testy exchanges.
“An unscripted debate is one of the few ways people can get an insight into a candidate,” he said.
There has already been some sparring, with Campbell on Tuesday asking Janey to disavow the first negative ad of the race. The spot, done by an independent super PAC, criticizes Campbell for associating with charter school proponents. Campbell has persistently criticized Janey on an array of issues in recent months.
And on a WCVB appearance that aired Sunday, Janey responded to recent criticism from Essaibi George, who said Janey’s eviction moratorium was “a band-aid over a bullet wound.” Janey used her televised appearance to hit back, saying it was disappointing that “a candidate who has a track record of evicting tenants, you know, be critical of an eviction moratorium.” It was an apparent reference to Essaibi George’s husband’s property development and management business.
Essaibi George’s campaign responded, “Personal attacks won’t speak to voters, leadership will,” a campaign spokeswoman said in a statement after Janey’s interview aired.
While candidates often have to knock others down as much as build themselves up in debates, there is a tricky balance to that dynamic, said Margie Zohn, a communication and presentation coach from Needham. Voters want someone who is fair-minded, and going too negative can backfire.
“You can’t just be a pit bull,” she said.
Debates represent a chance for candidates “to make an emotional, personal connection with the voters,” she added.
“You get to see how the person performs under pressure, facing an adversary, facing tough questions,” Zohn said. “It’s a window we don’t get otherwise into our political leaders.”
The debates present potential pitfalls, as well as opportunity, for the candidates, analysts warned — especially for those candidates tempted to go negative on their opponents in an attempt to draw contrasts in a race that features candidates who share many similar policy views.
Eldin Lynn Villafañe, a political strategist from Jamaica Plain who is not working for any of the candidates, said debates present the contenders with an opportunity to contrast their vision for Boston with their opponents’. Attacking someone personally on a debate stage, he said, “almost never works” unless a candidate is “deft at connecting the personal with the policy.”
Villafañe expects candidates to direct pointed questions at Janey since she has been in a position to implement policy.
While many observers see the debates as a potential inflection point, Tom Whalen, a political historian at Boston University and author, said he could not recall an anecdote in recent Boston mayoral history where a debate moment changed the dynamic of the race.
“It’s really who mobilizes their voters,” he said. “Unless someone makes a real ridiculous statement or gaffe.”
Janey, he said, will likely portray that she is doing a good job as acting mayor and rhetorically ask voters, “Why change horses midstream?”
He said he thinks that it’s Wu’s race to lose and that her campaign would be focusing on her ground game in the waning days of the preliminary contest. Attacking Wu could be perilous because “people like her,” he said.
Indeed, the Globe/Suffolk poll showed Wu with the highest favorability ratings of all four women, drawing positive reviews from 69 percent of likely voters, compared to Campbell with 63 percent, Janey with 56 percent, and Essaibi George with 44 percent.
Essaibi George, meanwhile, may frame herself in the debates as the more moderate and law-and-order alternative to more progressive candidates, he added.
Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, said that given the relatively high number of undecided voters, the debates could make a difference. While there have been scores of candidate forums during the race, such events, with limited exception, “have not really given the electorate the opportunity to really understand where the candidates stand as it relates to their vision for the city and how they would approach public policy to actualize” that vision.
The debate gives an opportunity to Barros, who has lagged behind in polls for months, to help people understand why he is in the race, said Sullivan, who has not endorsed in the race. Sullivan said there was potential for Wu to lose ground in the debates, saying the at-large city councilor from Roslindale should be “prepared to show why she deserves to be the front-runner.”
Until now, Sullivan added, “candidates haven’t really been challenged publicly on their positions.”
Wednesday’s debate will start at 7 p.m….