HOUSTON -- Mayor Annise Parker, leading the city during an era of budget cutbacks and high unemployment, has the lowest approval ratings of any Houston mayor in decades.
That's the striking headline popping out of an exclusive poll conducted less than a month before the city's Election Day. The mayor faces only token opposition, but the survey conducted by KHOU 11 News and KUHF Houston Public Radio indicates that a well-financed candidate could have seriously challenged Parker's bid for re-election to her second term.
"She is down in almost every demographic and geographic area of the city," said Bob Stein, the Rice University professor who supervised the poll.
The poll indicates fully half of likely Houston voters -- 50 percent -- rate Parker's job performance "fair" or "poor,' while 47 percent rate her "good" or "excellent." That's an unusually low approval rating for a first-term Houston mayor.
The mayor blames her low ratings mainly on general discontent with the economy. She also points out that fate has dealt her a difficult hand, forcing her to make politically unpopular decisions, like cutting services during an unprecedented budget crisis and imposing water conservation rules during an unprecedented drought.
"We have the worst economy here in Houston that we've had in decades and we have the worst economy that we've had nationally since the Great Depression," Parker said. "I understand completely why people are anxious or unhappy. It is what it is."
Other data in the poll indicates she may be right, because she's especially unpopular with the unemployed and voters whose relatives are out of work. For some reason, Stein notes, she's also less popular with renters than homeowners.
"People who are suffering, or see the city as heading in the wrong direction, who are unemployed, who've had financial problems, they seem to blame the mayor's performance on that," Stein said. "Obviously, it may not be a fair judgment, but it is a political judgment that voters make."
Perhaps as a result of that discontent, a whopping 50 percent of likely voters say they still haven't made up their minds how they'll cast their ballots in the mayor's race. If the election were held tomorrow, the poll indicates the winner would be "Don't Know." Parker wins the support of 37 percent of voters. Her five opponents -- little known and little funded -- split 11 percent of the vote, but they're all mired in single digits.
Other big city mayors across the country are facing similar low approval ratings, Stein noted.
"Bad times seem to hit big city mayors the hardest in large part," Stein said. "In part, I think it's because they are delivering and cutting some of the most basic services: Police, fire, parks, recreation and public works."
Nonetheless, the numbers wave a warning flag at the incumbent mayor and perhaps a signal to her potential rivals. Other ambitious politicos interested in running for mayor may see this poll as a sign that Parker is vulnerable, and may consider running against her in 2013, just as a number of challengers ran against former Mayor Lee Brown after his second term.
By comparison, other Houston mayors facing their first re-election bid have won much broader approval. After his first term, former Mayor Bill White's ratings were substantially higher -- 82 percent rated him "good" or "excellent," while 11 percent rated him "fair" or "poor."
Parker's approval ratings are notably lower than those of Brown after his first term, whom 56 percent of voters rated "good" or "excellent" and 36 percent rated "fair" or "poor." That's an inauspicious comparison for Parker; because Brown was so unpopular he faced a serious challenge to unseat him after two terms.
"I have no opinion as to whether someone will run against me or not." Parker said. "I don't have any control over that. All I have control over is what I do. And I'm just going to continue doing the same kind of work that I've done over the first two years."
The poll of 748 likely Houston voters, conducted by telephone between Oct. 6 to Oct. 16. has a margin of error of 3.6 percent.
The survey also indicates an especially low voter turnout. After poring over the survey data, Stein said he expects about 17 percent of voters to cast ballots, putting the turnout at about 125,000. That would be down substantially from the 2009 turnout of around 180,000.