Laslo Boyd: Maryland’s Undecided Voters

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The single most striking finding from this week’s Baltimore Sun and Washington Post polls is that Maryland voters are not yet paying much attention to the June Primary Election.  The very high proportion of undecided voters in the Democratic contests for Governor and Attorney General leaves lots of room for interpretation as well as spin from the candidates.

Whether most voters are even aware that there will be a primary on June 24 is questionable.  That date is a new one, replacing the traditional September primary.  With the General Assembly session dominating political news between now and early April, only hard-core political junkies are following the efforts of the various campaigns up to this point. The sparring and trading of accusations are echoing through a mostly empty room.

What does the voter inattention mean for the different candidates?   The most obvious conclusion is that neither of these two contests is firmly in the grip of any one candidate despite the overwhelming support that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown has from the Democratic establishment in Maryland.

If you are Attorney General Doug Gansler, you can take real comfort from the fact that Brown with a support level of 35% in the poll trails “Undecided” at 40% in the Sun’s poll. (Brown was at 34%, with 43% undecided, in the Post’s poll).  Put simply, despite eight years in which he appeared in hundreds of photo ops with Governor Martin O’Malley and carried out innumerable ceremonial activities, Brown is still not particularly well known to Maryland voters.  In that respect, he is like every other Lieutenant Governor who has preceded him.

From Gansler’s perspective, the figures show that there is still plenty of opportunity to define Brown for Maryland voters.  That has, of course, been his campaign strategy all along, to paint the Lieutenant Governor in television ads as not up to the job.

The poll also shows that no one knows who Gansler is either.  At 14% in the Sun (and 15% in the Post), he leads the third candidate, Delegate Heather Mizeur, by only 4 percentage points. (The Post poll has Gansler ahead of Mizeur by 7 percentage points).  That she, who has to be considered the longest of long shots, is that close to Gansler, should be alarming to the Attorney General.  Mizeur’s problem going forward is considerably greater than his, however, because she does not have the campaign funds available to mount a vigorous media campaign.

The polling numbers for the Attorney General’s race demonstrate rather dramatically that the February survey is almost exclusively a measure of name recognition rather than of favorability.  The best-known name on the ballot is Cardin.  Never mind that respondents at this point may not be sure which Cardin it is and only remember that there is a guy named Ben who they have voted for in the past.

Delegate Jon Cardin leads the pack at 18% in the Sun, which might actually make U.S. Senator Ben Cardin feel a bit unloved that the number isn’t higher.  The overwhelming winner in the survey, just as in the Governor’s race, is “Undecided” with a dominant 69% of the total.  Talk about a contest that hasn’t started yet and is not even approaching anyone’s radar screen.

The other three candidates for Attorney General are all in single-digits despite significant differences in the campaign funds that they have raised, the endorsement they have secured, and the active campaigning that they have done.  State Senator Brian Frosh, who leads decisively in all of those categories, polled at a mere 6%, with Delegate Alisha Braveboy at 4% and Delegate Bill Frick at 3%.  Those numbers are all so low as to indicate yet again that no one has started paying attention to this race.

All seven Democratic candidates are trying to figure out how to get some attention from the press during the General Assembly session.  For example, the gubernatorial contenders are vying to see who will be seen as the most in favor of Pre-K education and all three support raising the minimum wage.  Mizeur did score something of a coup by apparently getting the other two to agree that her push to decriminalize marijuana merits discussion.

Meanwhile, Jon Cardin seems to be trying to set a record for testifying on the most bills and sending out press releases about each appearance.  Frosh, of all the candidates, has the most serious job, continuing to chair the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

All this activity in Annapolis during the session is likely to have little or no impact on the views of voters.  Too much of the jockeying among the candidates takes the form of “inside baseball” disputes.  Moreover, do they really think voters are paying any serious attention to what’s going on in Annapolis?

There are two major conclusions that I draw from the current state of play for the June primary.  First, the winners have not yet been determined.  Neither of the leaders in the most recent poll has anything resembling a lock on the nomination.  The real campaigns won’t start until mid-April.

The second point to note is that turnout will be the decisive factor.  Non-presidential year primaries always have discouragingly low rates of turnout.  The first-time ever June Primary may well aggravate that problem.  Which jurisdictions each of the candidates are likely to win may not be as important as how large the turnout will be in each locale.

The key question to consider:  Which of these candidates has a ground-level organization that can turn out voters on June 24?

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.