Josh Kurtz: Polls Apart

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The thing about political rematches is, the participants are so familiar to the public that there are very few surprises during the course of the campaign.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) have already been in the arena together. They know each other's moves. They know what their opponent and their opponent's surrogates are going to do and say.

Though they have switched roles since their last go-around -- the challenger last time is now the incumbent, and vice-versa -- we know what their strategy (and their path to victory) is.

In fact, though they're both relatively young men, both Ehrlich and O’Malley launched their political careers when they were in their 20s, so both are familiar entities to the voters -- maybe a little too familiar.

It's a funny phenomenon, having two guys who have been considered rising stars for so long now at the possible apex of their careers. It's certainly, as a political observer and as a voter, hard not to think that familiarity might indeed breed contempt.

So while there haven’t been many surprises in this campaign -- and there aren’t likely to be many more -- one surprise came when the Washington Post released a poll last week showing O’Malley leading Ehrlich by 11 points among likely voters. It was a surprise because, plain and simple, it just didn’t seem right.

In his Gazette column on Friday, Blair Lee raised legitimate questions about the poll’s methodology. Most other public polls, after all, have shown the race a lot closer. Polling is a science; after Election Day, depending on the results in the Ehrlich-O’Malley contest, the Post’s pollsters’ methodology may be proven right.

But politics is a gut sport, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone -- even a Democrat -- who believes in his gut that O’Malley is truly 11 points ahead at present.

Need evidence? The Democratic Governors Association is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state to shore O’Malley up. Chances are, with so many critical, competitive races around the country, DGA leaders wouldn’t be doing so if O’Malley were 11 points up (though, to be fair, they wouldn’t be investing in Maryland at all if they thought it was a hopeless case).

The DGA would rather have that money to spend in critical Midwestern states where governors’ seats are in even greater danger of flipping to the Republicans, like Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Or in big states where the Democrats have a chance to grab GOP-held seats, like California, Texas and Florida.

Need more evidence? President Obama is coming to Bowie to do an event for O’Malley on Thursday. That’s a tell-tale sign that the Democratic base needs to be goosed into turning out on Election Day.

You can always tell what kind of election cycle it is going to be by which surrogates Democrats bring in to their strongholds, and when. It used to be that if Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy or Jesse Jackson were in the pews of African-American churches a Sunday or two before Election Day, then Democrats were in trouble.

Well, Teddy is no longer with us, and Jesse Jackson’s luster has diminished some. But here’s Obama, coming to help O’Malley. And even Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), who should be one of the safest incumbents in the country, is bringing in big-name help. Clinton is coming, and Vice President Joe Biden has already been here. Those guys shouldn’t have to be dispatched to Maryland so close to Election Day.

Martin O’Malley might well wind up winning by 11 points. We still don’t know, nationally, exactly how things are going to shake out on Election Day

It has looked for a very long time like it would be a very bad day for Democrats, from coast to coast. But some polls suggest that key races are tightening; nationally, the Republican brand is just as damaged as the Democrats’.

Even Republican strategists conceded to the New York Times the other day that, despite what most national political handicappers are saying, they can only count on getting half the seats they need to flip control of the House of Representatives.

But it still looks like a wave is coming, and what we are witnessing may just be a natural tightening of the polls. As Election Day grows closer, voters start paying attention, and the bases of both parties tend to “come home.” It’s the voters in the middle who remain the big mystery and tend to break late -- and in one direction.

Think back to one month before Election Day in 1998. Parris Glendening (D) and Ellen Sauerbrey (R) were tied in most polls. Nationally, because it was Bill Clinton’s sixth year as president, it seemed like it would be a good year for Republicans, that the “six-year itch” would naturally take hold.

But Republicans got way too aggressive in pursuing Clinton’s impeachment, and they paid the price politically. Democrats picked up seats in Congress rather than losing them. And in Maryland, partially as a consequence, Glendening beat Sauerbrey by 10 points.

Now think back to one month before Election Day in 2002. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) held a slight lead over Ehrlich in the polls. Nationally, there was a furious race for control of Congress.

By all rights, with George W. Bush completing his second year in the White House, it should have been a good Democratic year. But with the 9/11 terrorist strikes so fresh in everyone’s mind, it was no ordinary time. Republicans picked up seats in Congress. And in Maryland, Ehrlich upset Townsend.

For all the sound and fury that’s come before, the storyline of this election year will probably break late as well. O’Malley and his supporters are hoping for a rerun of 1998, at the national level and at home. But they’d be wise to anticipate a reprise of 2002 -- another Republican year. In other words, if Martin O’Malley is expecting to win, he’s going to have to do it on his own.

As for the Washington Post, their pollsters have something riding on this election as well. Back in 2006, their late polls on the gubernatorial and Senate races in Maryland were among the most accurate, in part because they anticipated higher African-American turnout than most of their competitors did. So they too are hoping that history repeats itself.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.