What MD’s Early Polls Tell Us

‘Undecided’ Wins in a Romp

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 21, 2014 — PREDICTING the outcome of Maryland’s primary races for governor based on polls four months in advance of the election is a little like wagering today on the outcome of May’s Kentucky Derby. The odds are strong you’ll get it wrong.

Early political polls are highly inaccurate. That’s clear from past Maryland gubernatorial elections for open seats. Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III easily outdistanced his rivals early in 1978, according to the polls. Lee lost.

Blair Lee III

Blair Lee III

Twenty-four years later, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a prohibitive early poll favorite to succeed Gov. Parris Glendening. It never happened.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

 Name Recognition Counts

Early poll results depend on a candidate’s name recognition more than anything else. Since neither Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown nor Attorney General Doug Gansler has had high media visibility over the past seven years, it’s not surprising the winner of both the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun early polls is Undecided.

On the Republican side, the big winner once again is Undecided at 68 percent.

The same holds true for attorney general. Still, name recognition counts. State Sen. Brian Frosh, state Del. Aisha Braveboy and state Del. Bill Frick aren’t household names by a longshot. Neither is state Del. Jon Cardin — but his uncle, Ben, the United States senator, is.

That explains Jon Cardin’s preeminence in recent polling, though Undecided wins that race in a romp with 69 percent.

When Voters Pay Attention

In truth, these campaigns won’t begin in earnest till the General Assembly goes home in early April. At the moment, few people are paying attention.

Brown continues to promote a sense of inevitability. He’s got all the establishment endorsements, especially the governor’s. So why not just crown him as the next governor?

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

Gansler keeps trying to make up for a terrible start last summer (remember “beachgate”?), but any time he says something sensible the Brown camp hysterically denounces it as a hideous crime against humanity.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

You can’t place much confidence in early polls. Still, Brown is obviously ahead in the first part of this race — despite growing criticism about his lack of leadership in the disastrous Obamacare sign-up program in Maryland.

The X Factor in June

What will people care about in late June when the primaries take place? That could prove pivotal. Are they content with the direction of Maryland under Gov. Martin O’Malley? Or do they want a different look and feel to state government?

Neither candidate is proposing a dramatically new path. Brown and Gansler are liberal Democrats, but the attorney general has displayed greater openness to new ideas regardless of ideology.

Polls won’t decide this election. Turnout and effective advertising will.

The June 24 date for this year’s gubernatorial primary is unheard of in these parts. That’s awfully early. This could lead to abysmally low turnout.

Outstanding Questions

Who does that help? Probably Gansler, since Brown’s strongholds have a history of lower voter participation.

Can Gansler persuade Democrats in rural counties and the Baltimore suburbs to vote heavily for him? If so, he might win. He remains the underdog.

Who will the third candidate in this race, Del. Heather Mizeur, hurt the most? She represents Montgomery County — Gansler country — but she appeals to the most ardent liberal Democrats who otherwise would vote for Brown.

Much is riding on which candidate develops the best marketing plan and produces the best ads. Brown is selling himself as a continuation of the liberal O’Malley years. Gansler is the “change candidate” who must go on the offensive to show that Brown is an empty suit.

Which candidate will capture the public’s imagination? Which candidate will come across as most likeable and knowledgeable in the televised gubernatorial debates?

Art, Not Science

It’s helpful to keep in mind that recent polls only give us a Polaroid snapshot of the governor’s race as of the moment — and nothing more. Many things will change in the coming months. The closer we come to June 24, the more meaningful polls become.

But polling is far from perfect. Pollsters can get it wrong. That’s because accurately gauging public sentiment and voting trends is very much an art and not a science.

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