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December 1, 2004

When Polling Goes Bad

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Back in late October a statewide poll tested Governor Bob Ehrlich's reelection against both Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan.

Results demonstrate a real challenge ahead for the first term incumbent governor. Mr. O'Malley polls ahead of Mr. Ehrlich by a margin of 51% to 44%. Against Mr. Duncan, Governor Ehrlich fares much better, ahead by 49% to 45%, but within the 4% margin of error.

So why the headline? How is it that I suggest that polling has gone bad?

Look a little deeper into the poll. First, remember that this State features a solid voting majority for Democrats over Republicans, almost 2-1 statewide. Any Democrat should be blowing the doors off a Republican opponent, especially in the race for governor.

The fact that Mayor O'Malley, a photogenic and charming politician, can only post a 6 point gain over Governor Ehrlich (2 points when you allow for the margin of error) in a state with a 2-1 voter registration does not bode well for Charm City's chief elected official.

County Executive Duncan's showing is even more troubling. There is just no way that should be the case!

Looking further into the polling data defines some other concerns for Democrats, especially those who fall into the ideological category known as progressive.

Governor Ehrlich has a 59% percent job approval rating, with 38% holding an unfavorable view of his efforts to date.

One has to ponder the results. Do those who approve of the Ehrlich agenda like how he has taken a firm stand against broad-based revenue increases?

Are they all slots players who would rather not drive to Delaware, New Jersey, and West Virginia?

If the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is right, and either Mayor O'Malley or Mr. Duncan are a slam-dunk to knock Governor Ehrlich off in 2006, how do they account for the favorability number?

One quick look at the numbers suggests that Mr. Duncan should consider a political job other than governor. Mayor O'Malley looks to crush him in a primary, and Governor Ehrlich polls ahead in a general election runoff.

Mayor O'Malley would be a very strong candidate for any elected office. He possesses those few key ingredients that all successful politicians share. He speaks well, looks nice, and makes strong people connections.

He has been a frequent critic of Governor Ehrlich's agenda, so the progressive wing of his party will connect with him.

So what would Governor Ehrlich have to do to hold off an O'Malley candidacy?

The truth is, maybe nothing! Violent crime continues to be a real problem in Baltimore's less affluent neighborhoods. Even worse than street crimes (is there really anything worse?) are the violent crimes occurring in Baltimore's troubled inner city schools.

Shootings, stabbings, and gang fights add to serious doubts about the public school system in Baltimore. How can Mayor O'Malley campaign statewide if he can't keep Baltimore schoolchildren safe?

That says nothing about the financial problems facing the Baltimore school system. Financial stewardship will be a strong component of an Ehrlich campaign. Accountability will also be an Ehrlich highlight.

These polls tell me that Maryland is on the verge of a shift in thinking. What I cannot predict is whether that shift is left or right. The progressives are working hard to register young people and minority voters who support expanded programs and funding for a wide range of social and support initiatives.

Many other Maryland voters, both Democrats and Republicans, feel that they have been taxed enough and do not support an expansion of programs and services. Governor Ehrlich's approach seems more to their liking, with a solid commitment to public education and safety, but a desire to tighten the belt elsewhere in state government.

This poll - and others like it - doesn't really tell the whole story. The story they do tell is a mystery, with an ending that has not been written yet. It is far too early for Martin O'Malley to predict a successful gubernatorial campaign, and way too premature for Democrats to plan a victory rally.

Two more legislative sessions dominated by a liberal agenda could produce a voter backlash against the status quo. Count on Governor Ehrlich - and his media savvy campaign machine - to define his own legacy better than Mayor O'Malley or County Executive Duncan.

Polls are fun to watch, but I'd suggest a large grain of kosher salt when deciding how accurate the poll results are. O'Malley should be at least 10 points ahead, and Democrats in the know KNOW these results are bad!

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