Skip to Content

New Salt Lake mayoral poll shows Jim Dabakis' lead dwindling

FILE - New poll numbers show former state Sen. Jim Dabakis' strong lead has weakened as other candidates appear to gain momentum — though margins are so narrow, pundits are still calling the race too close to call as the primary approaches. Deseret News composite photo

SALT LAKE CITY — New poll numbers show former state Sen. Jim Dabakis' strong lead has weakened as other candidates appear to gain momentum — though margins are so narrow, pundits are still calling the race too close to call as the primary approaches.

While the poll's results were good news to some candidates, others were left unpleasantly surprised but still hopeful they can pick up support from a big chunk of undecided voters.

The poll conducted this week by the Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah of 444 registered voters shows Dabakis with 21% support over Sen. Luz Escamilla's 17%. That difference is within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall is a close third with 13%, just 4% behind Escamilla.

David Garbett came in fourth with 9% support. David Ibarra came next with 6%, then former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold with 5%, Rainer Huck with 1%, and Richard Goldberger with 0% in the Tribune poll.

A separate poll commissioned by the Salt Lake Chamber and released earlier this week showed Dabakis had a much wider, 15-point lead over Escamilla — but political pundits and pollsters cautioned voters against reading too much into the results due to its high margin of error of plus or minus 8 percentage points.

Friday's poll shows all three candidates "have a good shot to be top vote-getter in the primary election," said Jason Perry, head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

"It's incredibly noteworthy," Perry said, that the poll also shows 28% of undecided voters, "with especially high numbers of women, young voters, and Republicans still working to make up their minds."

"Whoever can capture these voters will likely be moving on to the general election," Perry said.

Of the 28% of undecideds, 32% are female, 35% are between the ages of 18 and 34, and a 50% are Republican, according to the poll.

The survey shows Dabakis has slipped from his 17-point lead over Escamilla in an Alliance for a Better Utah poll released in June. Dabakis said that doesn't surprise him.

"I've always said it would tighten up," he said Friday. "It's going to be a tough race, and that's why we're working 20 hours a day."

Both Escamilla and Mendenhall were enthused by the poll's results.

To Escamilla, it again showed her campaign is "consistently" landing in second place, which she said is "great news for us, but we don't take very much for granted."

"For us, it's about keeping up what we're doing," Escamilla said. "People like to hear substance. People like to hear there's a vision for Salt Lake City."

Mendenhall said she was "excited" about Friday's poll results, which she called a "confirmation of the momentum that we're feeling and seeing in our work every single day."

Mendenhall said she's hearing "more and more" that voters want a change from electing former state legislators. Both Ralph Becker and Jackie Biskupski served in the Utah Legislature prior to becoming mayors.

"Having someone on the general election ballot that actually knows city government and has a proven record of making it work well for the people is something people want to see," Mendenhall said.

With margins so close, she said her campaign will only pick up steam.

"This is anybody's race at this point."

Escamilla and Mendenhall credit their campaigns' hard work for chipping away at Dabakis' lead. But Dabakis claims "dark money" was at play, pointing out that a political action committee tied to the billboard company Reagan Outdoor Advertising has paid for free billboards for Escamilla and other candidates, including Ibarra and Garbett. It's a tactic that was used in the 2015 mayor's race after Becker's long history of conflict with the billboard company.

"I think it's had an effect on the poll, frankly," Dabakis said, pledging to change the city's campaign financing laws if he's elected.

Escamilla said her campaign uses "all the tools in the toolbox" to get her name in front of voters, but she said she did not "coordinate" with the billboard PAC. She also pointed out that Dabakis has used much of his own funds to help pay for his billboards.

Garbett, with 4 percentage points behind Mendenhall in the poll, said he was "surprised" by the results, but skeptical of how the poll represents who will actually cast their votes in the primary election.

"My take from this poll is that we've got a lot of work to do, which we knew we would have to, so it's continuing to get out there and get to this undecided voter," Garbett said. "I would caution anybody from feeling like this is the end-all, be-all for what's going to happen in this election because this is all about who shows up to vote."

Ibarra said the survey doesn't "phase him" because he's continuing to see the enthusiasm for his campaign while knocking on doors every day.

"The poll didn't diminish that enthusiasm one iota," he said, confident he'll pick up undecided voters.

Penfold said the poll "surprised me a little bit," but he isn't discouraged, also pointing to undecided voters as "good news for us." He noted that clicks to his campaign website have jumped this week.

"So I think people are researching this race … they're definitely taking their time, doing their research, and I think that's good for me," he said.

Eleven days remain in the countdown to the Aug. 13 primary.