Laslo Boyd: A Very Strange Election

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Making sense of this year’s Primary Election has to start with the likelihood of very low voter turnout.  As I described last week, turnout in Maryland has declined from 40% in 1994 to 25% in 2010.  Forty percent is nothing to brag about and has serious ramifications for the concept of popular sovereignty, but it looks spectacular compared to what we are likely to see this June.

The problem is more than a statistical trend.  As a recent poll confirmed, there’s not much interest or excitement among prospective voters about the candidates or the election.   It’s not quite as bad as “What if they had an election and no one showed up?” but it’s getting way too close.

Start with the fact that the three candidates for Democratic nomination for Governor are all coming from offices that have no track record of producing winners.  Lt. Governor may well be the worst position ever created.  This is a reality that yet another person will soon discover despite the promises made by the candidate at the top of the ticket.   The big problem with being Lt. Governor is that your job is to stay in the shadow of the governor. 

Attorney General isn’t much better, although you are less constrained because you don’t work directly for someone else.  On the other hand, relatively few people know what the Attorney General does and it’s not easy to get attention for your work.

Running from the House of Delegates is even more rare.  Your electoral district is one forty-seventh of the entire state and very few people outside that district have ever heard your name.  A handful of members of the General Assembly may be known to a wider audience.  However, even a person as prominent as Speaker of the House or President of the Senate doesn’t have much statewide recognition.

Then there’s the reality that none of the three current candidates has done much to gain attention in the last eight years.  Even taking account of the inherent limitations, Anthony Brown, Doug Gansler, and Heather Mizeur have not become household names during the O’Malley years.

The current Governor does constantly refer to the “O’Malley-Brown Administration.”  And Brown does get to appear in all of the official photographs.  As a result, the Lt. Governor does have more name recognition than the other two candidates, but voters still know very little about him.

And, sad to say, little information has been offered by the candidate during the campaign.  His appearances are tightly controlled and carefully scripted.  His ads are heavy on biography but largely devoid of any vision for the future or recitation of accomplishments.  He keeps avoiding the subject of the state’s disastrous health care web site.  Even Benjamin Jealous, who wrote a column in the Sun criticizing Doug Gansler for attacking Brown, decided not to mention the claim that Brown was the Administration “point person” on health care.

There are a number of smart and sophisticated public officials in Maryland who have endorsed Brown and who, I am sure, genuinely see him as a capable leader.  What’s strange is that neither they nor the campaign nor Brown himself have made the case for his leadership ability.  It’s all about biography and reflected glory from Martin O’Malley.

Doug Gansler, similarly, has been remarkably invisible during his eight years as Attorney General.  Given the history of many state attorneys general who have made the move on to the position of governor, it’s curious that Gansler did not make more of the platform that he had.  It certainly seems like it was a deliberate strategy on his part, but it’s looking now like a lost opportunity.

If you doubt that point, think about the very high profile that Comptroller Peter Franchot has had for much of the same eight years.  Franchot is everywhere, sometimes to the annoyance of other state officials, but that hasn’t slowed him down much. 

Mizeur probably never had a chance, even had she wanted to, to build a high profile as a relatively non-influential member of the House of Delegates.  One of the curiosities of her campaign is that she has attracted strong and enthusiastic support from her backers despite a reputation of not working well with others in Annapolis.

You can add other layers of complexity to the challenge of turnout in this year’s Primary.   For one, the public’s unhappiness with the political process and with politicians is very high, driven by the dysfunctional performance of Congress, but clearly spilling over to the state level.  The increased polarization of American politics energizes a small segment of the electorate but leads many others to conclude that it’s not worth their time or effort.

Let me suggest two additional curiosities about this year’s election.  First, the candidate with the best qualifications to hold an executive position isn’t even running for governor.  I am of course taking about Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who is Brown’s running mate. 

Ulman concluded that he couldn’t win the nomination this time and made the calculation that he would be a stronger contender in eight years.  Possibly, or he could be wrong on both counts.  Given the lack of enthusiasm for the current field, Ulman might have been able to persuade voters that he alone has the competence needed to run state government.

And, even if he serves eight years in a successful Brown Administration, Ulman will not be the only person contending for governor in 2022.  And he might not even be at the head of the list.

Even stranger, Peter Franchot, who was widely seen two years ago as a likely candidate, might well be running away with the race if he had not dropped out.  Franchot has done a good job of keeping himself in front of the public during his eight years, is seen as running an effective Comptroller’s Office, and might have carved out a distinct niche in a crowded field. 

Instead, we are faced with the prospect of turnout in the 20-25% range and the winner of the nomination getting only 40% of the vote.   Translating that into numbers, one of these candidates might win the Democratic nomination with a vote total less than 200,000.    That would be quite a commentary on the electoral process.

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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.