July 21, 2023 10:00am

Power Poll Prediction: It’s Freddie and Matt

Coming to an election runoff near you

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

It’s Matt Wiltshire and Freddie O’Connell headed to a runoff in the Aug. 3 mayor’s race, according to Power Poll Nashville.

What a conversation that will be.

Let us begin here: We asked members two types of questions in this survey. First, we asked members to say who they were voting for. Then we asked members to put aside their preferences and predict which candidates would place first and second.

In the first case—who members were actually voting for—38% said they were voting for Wiltshire (a former affordable housing executive) and 23% for O’Connell (a district Metro Councilmember). Full results of all candidates are further down.

As to the prediction questions, we asked members to forecast who they thought would place first and second. When asked who would place first, 51% of respondents selected Wiltshire and 30% picked O’Connell. And when asked to predict who would place second, 32% picked O’Connell and 24% Wiltshire.

Seen another way in the prediction questions, Wiltshire had 647 votes predicting he would place first or second. And O’Connell had 473 votes predicting he would place first or second. (O’Connell’s 473 predictive votes were more than twice as high as the next finisher.)

So, in both the actual vote question, and the prediction vote questions, Wiltshire and O’Connell placed first and second respectively.

It is widely anticipated that owing to the sprawling field of a dozen candidates on the ballot, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters since no candidate will receive over 50% of the vote. That is why Power Poll is so focused on the top two. The runoff will be Sept. 14, six weeks after the Aug.3 contest. Early voting is now underway.

Our final question asked members to rate the quality of the candidates and the campaign overall. Nearly 60% characterized the field as “average” and said that the “discussion only scratched the surface.” Another 31% thought more positively of the race, saying there were “many first-rate candidates” and that the discussion of the issues had been “robust.” A more negative and smaller set of respondents—6%—thought the candidates as a whole were a “bad group.”

Here are the specific questions and answers to this survey, which again broke all-time participation records for Nashville:


Wiltshire’s strong Power Poll showing this month continues his string of first-place finishes ever since Power Poll began asking about the mayor’s race in February. Then, 49% of Power Poll respondents said Wiltshire had “the best chance of being elected.” O’Connell, in that same February poll, registered a gloomy 3%, placing behind even businessman Jim Gingrich who abandoned the race this week. As for who was in second place back in February, it was state Sen. Jeff Yarbro.

It took O’Connell forever and a day to build support with Power Pollers. In March, the second month Power Poll surveyed about the race, O’Connell had only inched up to 4%. In April, he was up to 6%. Not exactly reason to write home about. (Second place, in both March and April, still belonged to Yarbro.)

But then, in late May, a butterfly flapped its wings in Tierra del Fuego, and in the space of eight days, the mayor’s race was reordered. On May 19, Power Poll published results showing O’Connell notching a strong top-four finish. With considerable upward trajectory, O'Connell was now fighting to join the leading contenders. Four days later, in one of the weirdest and most brilliant pieces of political reporting ever published here, former Nashville Scene editor Liz Garrigan (who has lived full-time in Thailand for years and in France for years before that), wrote a column in her former alt-weekly that dismissed many of the candidates but landed glowingly on the seemingly overlooked O’Connell. (Headline: “View From a Broad.” Really good.) Garrigan wrote: “Maybe only dinosaurs remember this, but the last mayoral candidate who looked askance at a Titans stadium deal, Bill Purcell, won the job.”

Why was it that a woman half a world away and only tenuously connected to the city could describe the political reality here better than anyone else?

And then, four days after Garrigan’s piece, Axios’ Nate Rau chimed in with his own O’Connell blessing. “Even those who wish for a more pro-business candidate than O’Connell concede his campaign is successfully getting off the ground.”

As summer commenced, and with everyone loving a come-from-behind political narrative, Freddie was becoming the break-out guy, the lefty councilmember whose nerdy, informed, just-the-facts, heavily bespectacled delivery was drawing him within striking distance of the city’s top job. We were all waiting for one of the candidates to make a move. Freddie moved. The talk got right for him.


By the June Power Poll, O’Connell had overtaken Yarbro and secured a top-two finish, with the ever-supreme Wiltshire still up top.

And here we are now, in July, with O’Connell showing himself to be well-positioned to face Wiltshire in a runoff.

Of the one dozen candidates, many have simply failed to connect. Five are black women, sadly assuring a measure of vote dilution among them, including Sharon Hurt, the well-respected councilwoman from Bellevue, and Vivian Wilhoite, the property assessor. Gingrich, the former COO of AllianceBernstein, abandoned the contest as previously mentioned after spending well over $2 million in TV ads and having little to show for it other than an expensive scrapbook.

More curious are the two state senators with county-wide name recognition—Jeff Yarbro and Heidi Campbell. Both have struggled to find a distinguishing spark to their campaign messages and have been lackluster in debates. Each claims to have an advantage in being able to heal the rifts between the besieged city of Nashville and the aggressor state of Tennessee, but many have pointed out that they ARE the state of Tennessee.

While Power Poll numbers show Campbell failing to achieve liftoff, few at this juncture would completely dismiss Yarbro. Reports show him with considerable cash on hand and his TV spots are good.

Elsewhere in the pack lurks the intriguing case of Alice Rolli, the not-very-well-known Republican who has smartly zigged where the field's Democrats have zagged. By occupying conservative bandwidth (opposition to tax increases, help for law enforcement, and abolition of our city school board via mayoral takeover), Rolli’s messaging makes sense. Only one person is asking for votes on the right. She is.

Plenty of people these days are recalling the 2015 mayoral race, which saw the most left-leaning candidate in the contest (Megan Barry) wind up in a runoff against the most right-leaning candidate (David Fox), only to see Barry triumph. Fox, who is assisting Rolli in her race, is déjà vu all over again. “Alice is tracking exactly in line with me from 2015,” he says. “Eight or nine weeks out I was at 4 or 5%, about a month out I was roughly 13% or 14% and I finished with 22.8%. Time is working well for Alice. The more people are aware of her the better she does. I expect she will get in the runoff and will be very competitive to win it all in September.”

Which brings us, in conclusion, back to how Freddie and Matt attained these levels of higher political consciousness.

For Wiltshire, his strengths have included his Labrador retriever personality, prodigious fundraising skills, and Democratic genetics that have gotten mashed up with a business-friendly centrism. These traits have earned him massive support among mainline Power Poll-type folks. He was probably the best debate performer. He shakes a good hand. To know him is to love him. Beyond that, he’s run a risk-free campaign, broadcast TV spots that say very little, and taken no outsized positions on much of anything.

Then there’s Freddie. His rise can be attributed to knowing more about Metro Government than the others. He seems to have earned a trust from people who think that because of his massive hard drive of a brain, he will do what is right. The geeky authenticity wears on you. Closer to the battleground, O’Connell has leveraged his opposition to the biggest deal this year (the Titans new stadium) into an argument for helping the lives of the average folks who live here. The question about Freddie is his ceiling. Many question whether his brand of progressivism can clear 50% of Nashville voters.

Al Gore once told me that a first rule of politics is to define your enemy because in doing so you define yourself. Freddie’s enemies are bachelorettes, billionaires getting tax breaks, and state legislators messing with our city. I don’t know who Wiltshire’s enemies are. He isn't taking the enemy route.

Wiltshire and O’Connell are not drastically different political animals, and the space between them gets fuzzy. But different they are. Wiltshire is more in the pro-growth mode of a Bredesen or Dean, motivated to put Nashville in the same paragraph with other big-league American cities, and more firmly rooted in a tradition that makes the private sector an engine of improvement in the city. O’Connell, meanwhile, is more in the mode of a neighborhood-centric Purcell, where precious tax dollars are to be prioritized for residents and not businesses coming here, where the little details of local government and administration matter, and where average folks look to government for a leg up.

These governing ideologies in Nashville kind of go in cycles. Frankly I am not sure what cycle we’re in now.

Turnout is going to be pitiful, in the range of 100,000. Early voting is looking a bit lame even as we speak. The two candidates who make the runoff have the names of 20,000 to 25,000 supporters on a thumb drive. We’re now at a point where it’s all about getting those voters to the polls.

You gotta love this stuff. Praise be to all the candidates.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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