Jessica Burke barely recognized the acting Mayor when she passed her on an East Boston sidewalk over the weekend. If not for her dog stopping to sniff Kim Janey and her entourage — security, union supporters, translators and press — Burke may have missed the mayor completely.
"I was like, 'oh, a group of people! Someone has a press pass, someone's dressed nicely. ... This woman looks familiar,'" said Burke recounting how she drank in the scene. "And then, I went on her Twitter page and realized."
Burke, 32, is one of the many Boston voters who has been preoccupied with the daily hurdles of life in a pandemic and remains undecided before Tuesday's preliminary election. In Burke's case, a move and a job search kept her from following the race more closely.
Pollsters say if the conflicted electors nail down choices and cast ballots, they'll play a big role in determining the two competitors for the Nov. 2 general election. The latest poll showed 14% of likely voters were still undecided ahead of the preliminary on Tuesday.
When Burke last tuned in, City Councilor Michelle Wu, the candidate she was originally leaning towards, was challenging then-mayor Marty Walsh for the seat.
Since then, she has come to be torn between Wu and Janey, and said seeing the acting mayor canvass in her neighborhood with union workers was impressive.
Police reform plans, she said, will be part of her deciding factor.
"I'm assuming that they both have one for greater police accountability and reform," she said. "If one of them has a more comprehensive plan than the other, that would be something that would appeal to me."
Burke is what pollster David Paleologos calls a "soft Wu" voter, one who is leaning towards the frontrunner, but is still poachable. Their actions can make this year's preliminary election results "interesting."
"If you're liberal, or very liberal, and you say to us in a poll that you're going to vote for Wu, but you're really 50/50 between Wu and another candidate, that gives an incredible amount of power" to shape election results that deviate from what polls have suggested, Paleologos said.
And with Wu enjoying a comfortable lead in the polls, her soft supporters could, "in a unique twist," interpret the front-runner's success as a reason to vote for their second-choice candidate, Paleologos said.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, he added, would be most likely to benefit from that. According to the latest Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll he conducted, 43% of Wu voters indicated Campbell as their second choice.
That tidbit was not lost on Campbell's campaign. The Dorchester/Mattapan-area Councilor spent the final weekend before the election traversing the city with a goal to hit every neighborhood.
At rally for a group of about 20 canvassers in Roxbury, Gabrielle Jean-Jacques and her husband Alex, both undecided, watched and seemed to be leaning towards Campbell.
"I'm really excited and happy about the opportunity that a woman of color, especially a Black woman, could end up being the mayor of Boston," said Jean-Jacques, 36, explaining that she's torn between Janey and Campbell.
Work and a commitment to self-care, she added, has kept her from watching the race more closely.
"It's been a busy time," said Jean-Jacques. "Sometimes I need to unplug and not be so involved with what's happening in politics ... but, I am trying to be, as best as I can, a citizen and a resident of Boston that's responsible and that does exercise my right to vote."
The two women's plans for schools, she said, will most likely be her deciding factor.
Education has been a sore point for Campbell among ultra-progressive voters who dislike indirect support the Campbell superPAC has received from pro-charter school donors. That, coupled with Campbell's support of charter school expansion in 2016, has made that circle of voters wary.
But education has been a bright spot for City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a former Boston Public Schools teacher.
Essaibi George is the last of the three women political observers say are competing in this year's so-called "race for second place," where Michelle Wu is all but assumed to be one of the two to advance to the general, leaving a fight for the other.
For her part, Wu is implicitly guarding against having her soft voters stray to another campaign.
At a large rally in Chinatown alongside U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren Saturday, Wu admonished a sea of purple-shirted supporters about faith in polls.
"We've seen some nice headlines, but I don't believe any numbers until the polls close on Tuesday night," she said to roaring applause. "We're going to need every vote."
Also at that rally was 26-year-old James Tran, who said school, work and a recent condo purchase have taken up most of his attention.
"I don't really know too much about the [mayoral] candidates. I just walked upon this rally and I know that there's one candidate named Michelle Wu," he said. "I'm more into the presidential [elections] — and the smaller ones, I'm ashamed to say but, I don't really follow."
Tran, who learned of the preliminary election during an interview with GBH News, said his choice would likely hinge on which candidate is least likely to raise his taxes.
"I understand that rich people have to be taxed, but personally, I'm not trying to have my money be taken," he chuckled.
While city tax policy has not emerged as a major issue of the preliminary campaign season, where to spend the city's millions in federal pandemic relief funds has.
Along with Wu, former economic development chief John Barros was the first to call for dedicating a large portion of money to solving the city's housing crisis. Barros, who has lagged his opponents in fundraising and polling, has specifically called for investing between $200 and $300 million into various housing solutions.
All others have since pledged to put at least $200 million towards supporting affordable homeownership and affordable rentals.
Back in Eastie, Burke admits "housing is insane," and remains torn between Wu and Janey. It's a good problem, she said, because it means women of color are finally breaking through for a chance to lead Boston.
It's also more difficult because of how Boston's elections are structured.
"It's funny because, when there's a bipartisan race, that always just such an easy decision," Burke said, noting her tendency to vote for Democrats. "It's interesting and more exciting when there are two or more very good Democratic candidates. Then, you get to actually, I think, start looking into the policies and you have to educate yourself about them — otherwise you're just picking out of a bag."