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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ehrlich Should Look to Massachusetts for Inspiration

As former Governor Bob Ehrlich continues to play close to the vest with regard to his future plans he may want to look to Maryland's Bay Brother in Blue - Massachusetts - for inspiration. Massachusetts has not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, but a little known state senator by the name of Scott Brown has just won the seat once held by Ted Kennedy. If a Republican can win the Senate seat in Massachusetts then Ehrlich would certainly have a good shot at reclaiming his old job in Maryland. Massachusetts and Maryland share some interesting parallels – Democrats enjoy significant registration advantage in each state, roughly 3 to 1 in Massachusetts and 2 to I in Maryland. Unlike Maryland, most Bay State voters are registered Independents – about 50% I, 36% D, and 14% R. In Maryland, the breakdown is about 57% D, 27% R, and 16% I. So Maryland has more registered Democrats and more registered Republicans. But when Independent voters in Massachusetts are asked which party the lean toward the breakdown is about 50% D, 32% R, and 19%. “Leaner” data is not available for Maryland but according to 2008 exit polls, the Maryland electorate was 51% D, 28% R, and 21% I – suggesting closeness in party preference between the states.

In 2008, Barack Obama won Massachusetts by a 62% to 36% margin, he won Maryland 62% to 37%. In fact, presidential election results have tracked closely between the 2 states for a couple decades. Both states voted for Reagan by a similar margin in 1984. The two times when Massachusetts diverged most from Maryland were 1988 and 2004 when native sons were on the ballot. There are differences, the most striking being that Massachusetts lacks a significant block of minority voters. In 2008 the Massachusetts electorate was 79% white and only 9% African American. In Maryland the electorate was considerably more diverse – 64% white and 25% African American. African American voters overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama and traditionally vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates regardless of office. This does provide an advantage to O'Malley, but that advantage is somewhat offset by the fact that the white vote is less predictable in Maryland. In Massachusetts in 2008 59% of white voters voted Democrat, but in Maryland Obama received only 47% of the white vote. The latest Gonzales Poll shows that O'Malley holds a lead over Ehrlich, 48% to 39%, but O'Malley only wins 39% of white voters and 39% of Independents - this shows key danger areas for O'Malley.

In Massachusetts, an analysis done right after the election by Charles Franklin at Pollster.com found that Scott Brown won slightly more votes in Massachusetts than did John McCain in 2008. The Democrat, Martha Coakley, won only 56% of Barack Obama's total from 2008. In other words, Republicans and Independents turned out, but Democrats did not. Applying that turn-out model to Maryland I found that if Ehrlich won the McCain vote from 2008 and O'Malley received only 56% of the Obama vote Ehrlich would win the election 51% to 48%, essentially the same as his victory margin in 2002. Sound unrealistic? In 2008, Obama won 1,629,467 votes in Maryland compared to 942,279 for O'Malley in 2006 - 57.8% of President Obama's 2008 total. McCain won 959,862 votes in 2008 and Ehrlich 825,464 or 86% of McCain's total. If 2010 continues to be a year of depressed enthusiasm among Democratic voters Ehrlich could easily replicate Brown's path to victory here in Maryland. The shifting support among Independents and the enthusiasm among Republican voters should be a cause for concern among incumbent Democrats - O'Malley included.

It is also worth noting that Brown spent far less money than did Coakley. This suggests that O'Malley's impressive $5.7 million war chest may not be so impressive. Incumbent Governor John Corzine's $30 million investment in New Jersey proved to be no match for challenger Chris Christie's $8.8 million - come Election Day Corzine won only 44% of the vote, roughly equal to his 45% approval rating one month before the election. The latest Gonzales Poll shows that O'Malley's approval rating has been below 50% since October 2007 and is only at 46% now - this is the greatest danger sign.

Back to New England, the fact that the race in Massachusetts was a contest suggests that there may be few Democratic seats that can truly be labeled as “safe” come November 2010. Given Brown's win, Ehrlich should announce his candidacy for Governor now. There seems to be no more benefit in waiting.

Todd Eberly, Assisitant Professor of Political Science