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New poll shows Innamorato vaulting to lead in county executive race

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

A new survey from Pittsburgh Works Together, a consortium of business interests and building trades unions, shows that state Rep. Sara Innamorato has vaulted to the lead in the race for Allegheny County Executive.

Innamorato has the backing of 32% of registered Democrats likely to vote in the May 16 primary, the survey of 400 voters by Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies shows.

County Treasurer John Weinstein and Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb are tied at 20% support, with 18% of Democratic voters still undecided. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9%.

The numbers show impressive gains from an earlier Pittsburgh Works Together poll conducted over a month ago in which Innamorato finished third. Her gains seem tied to a dramatic increase in name recognition: Just under half of voters previously surveyed said they had heard of her. That number has jumped to 80 percent.

More detailed polling information obtained by WESA also suggests that Innamorato, a progressive, may have been helped in the new survey by a pool of respondents especially likely to see things her way. Fully 78 percent of voters identified themselves as "strong Democrats" in this poll — up from 68 percent of those surveyed in March, and two-thirds of the new poll's voters identified themselves as "liberal."

Similarly, just over half of voters — 52 percent — said they had a favorable impression of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The earlier survey put his support around 7 in 10.

By lunchtime Wednesday, some Democrats outside the Innamorato fold were speculating privately about whether the poll had been an attempt to boost Innamorato's prospects, in hopes that doing so would help Joe Rockey, a retired bank executive who is the only Republican running for the county's top seat. The previous survey suggested that while all three Democratic front-runners would begin a fall campaign with a strong advantage over Rockey — who had little name recognition — Innamorato's edge was the weakest of the three, thanks to her own more limited name recognition at the time.

Democratic suspicions of the poll derive in part from the fact that Public Opinion Strategies is a Republican firm, and that the membership of Pittsburgh Works Together draws heavily from interests that might not seem friendly to Innamorato's left-of-center campaign: building trade unions as well as corporate interests active in manufacturing and natural gas. (The organization says its mission is to create “an inclusive vision of economic progress that embraces and respects both traditional legacy industries and emerging ones.”)

Ken Zapinski, a spokesman for Pittsburgh Works Together, denied any motive or effort to help or hurt a candidate. "Public Opinion Strategies is a well-regarded pollster that does quality work for clients across the country," he said. Pittsburgh Works commissioned the polls as part of a broader effort to inform voters and the press, he added, and had a long partnership with the firm.

In an interview, Public Opinion Strategies pollster Gene Ulm seemed bemused by the stir his survey had caused. "To my mind, we didn't see anything crazy here."

Ulm said that while his firm's initial poll showed a very fluid race, "I said at the time that if I was going to go to Las Vegas and bet on a candidate, I'd bet on Sara. ... She's the one with the energy."

Ulm said that both polls used the same mixed-bag approach to connecting with voters — a mix of landline calls, cell phone, and text-to-web invitations to complete a survey. And he said it surveyed from a similar mix of demographic and geographic factors. The change in attitudes among those surveyed, he said, stemmed from the fact that "As you get closer to primary day, intensity grows" — and with it the ability of pollsters to model which voters will actually show up. Ulm said that his firm's first poll of the race "was maybe a little premature — I think the race was just getting started."

(As for Fitzgerald's fading approval numbers, Ulm said, "You never want to look at just one number. He went from god-like status to extremely strong.")

Innamorato is viewed favorable by 52 percent of self-described "strong Democrats," and not only are those voters the most likely to show up, but high favorables are crucial becuase "in a multi-candidate field, the people who hate you can go in five different ways," splitting the vote against you.

Ulm noted that nothing was certain: Turnout models could shift, and if they did so it would mean Democrats who were less hardcore might show up — to the benefit of Innamorato's rivals. But for now, he said, "She is being helped out by having the intensity and by the multi-candidate field."

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The polling data provided to WESA last month, found that the Democratic primary contest for county executive was essentially a jump ball.

Weinstein and Lamb were leading the field at that time, polling support from Democratic voters in the mid-to-high-20s but within each other's margin of error. Innamorato was trailing with support in the teens — but more than a quarter of Democrats polled said they were undecided at the time.

But that poll was conducted before the race began in earnest, following a time when only Weinstein had been on the airwaves. Innamorato and Lamb have joined the fray since then, with Innamorato's efforts being bolstered by progressive advocacy groups.

In a generic question about which party's candidate they would prefer, voters backed the Democrat by a two-to-one majority — an unsurprising result for an electorate that skews heavily toward Democrats.

That earlier survey showed that among Democratic voters — whose voices will matter most this month — crime and public safety were top concerns. But those voters also said they wanted the county’s next leader to focus on environmental concerns and racial and economic equity.

Pittsburgh Works Together polling showed that those topics, of particular interest to progressives and the Democratic base, were less important to general election voters, for whom crime and economic issues dwarfed other concerns.

Wednesday new results were cheered by the Innamorato campaign, which also announced an endorsement from Vermont Senator and progressive standard bearer Bernie Sanders

“Sara Innamorato couldn’t be happier that our people-powered campaign continues to build momentum, " said campaign manager Kacy McGill. " We know that there are those who want to continue the status quo who are mobilizing against us after hearing this news, but our focus is on making sure we reach every one of our neighbors across Allegheny County and turn out every vote in all 130 municipalities from now through Election Day.”

Updated: May 3, 2023 at 12:45 PM EDT
This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. on May 3, 2023 to provide more information about the poll and some reactions to it.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.