The inaugural Maryland Poll from St. Mary's College of Maryland surveyed the political landscape heading into the 2014 primary election and found that most Marylanders have absolutely no preference when it comes to the candidates for governor.
The poll is in line with prior polls for Gonzales Research, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post. Much like those polls, the Maryland Poll finds a very unsettled race for the GOP nomination and a Democratic race where the favorite, the sitting two term lieutenant governor, is being beaten by "No Preference" by a 2 to 1 margin.
The 2014 primary is two months away and yet most voters appear to have no firm commitments to the candidates.
No firm commitments
Specifically, the poll finds Anthony Brown with 27% support, followed by Douglas Gansler at 11% and Heather Mizeur at 8%. But fully 54% expressed no preference.
In a three-way race, Brown is close to the 34% that would be sufficient to win a closely matched election. But much like the other candidates, he has been unable to expand his base of support even after a year of campaigning and advertising.
Gansler has been hammering away at Brown on the issue of Maryland's failed health exchange, but with 11% support the issue does not appear to be helping him.
Mizeur has been generating a lot of coverage and interest of late owing to her unapologetically progressive campaign. She has embraced a living wage, physician-assisted suicide, a moratorium on fracking, legalization of marijuana, and host of other progressive wish list items. Yet she's made no noticeable progress in winning over potential voters.
Brown's to lose
The Democratic primary remains Brown's to lose and it's likely that the upcoming debates will present the final opportunities for either Gansler or Mizeur to change that reality.
Interestingly, Gansler seems to have shifted his strategy. Early on, he presented himself as a centrist, pro-business Democrat. Recently, he has de-emphasized those qualities and instead focused on more progressive policy issues. This was a mistake.
In a three way race with two candidates already chasing the progressive vote, the smart move is to target the voters that the other two are ignoring. Gansler needs to pivot back to the center. His only path to victory requires Brown and Mizeur to split the progressive vote while Gansler goes for the moderate and conservative Democrats still in the party.
GOP's disastrous situation
On the Republican side the poll finds a disastrous situation for the state's permanent minority party.
More than two-thirds of Maryland Republican voters have no preference. Larry Hogan claims the support of 16%, followed by David Craig at 7.8%. Neither Ron George nor Charles Lollar were able to crack 4%.
Maryland is a very tough nut for Republicans to crack. Democrats enjoy a 2 to 1 voter registration advantage and Republicans are rarely ever able to overcome the Democrats' advantages in the state's population centers.
For a Republican to win, the nominee would need several things to break his or her way.
· The Democratic party must be divided after the primary. That could certainly happen this year.
· The Democratic electorate must lack passion for the party's nominee. That could certainly happen this year.
· It must be a good year for Republicans nationally (like in 1994, 2002, or 2010). That could certainly happen this year.
Beyond those three ingredients, a Republican candidate also needs a unified and passionate Republican party and an electorate frustrated with the direction of the state. Neither of those two ingredients are present.
Not enough dissatisfaction
With regard to the direction of the state: Though the poll found a plurality of 46% agreeing that the state is going in the wrong direction, another 41% said it was going in the right direction. That margin is not sufficient for a Republican to overcome the Democrats' built in advantages.
Keep in mind, Bob Ehrlich had an approval rating above 50% when he lost the 2006 election by 6 percentage points.
A clear majority of poll respondents supported increasing the minimum wage and reported that the Affordable Care Act either helped their families or had no effect on them, a slim majority supported decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, and pluralities supported affirmative action, the fracking moratorium and gun control.
In a particularly interesting finding, the survey asked respondents how they were registered and then later asked what party they consider themselves to be a member of. The voter registration numbers essentially match state records - 53% Democrat, 28% Republican, and 18.5% Independent or other.
When asked how they see themselves, the breakdown was 44% Democrat, 25% Republican, and 31% Independent or other. The breakdown shows that there is an opportunity for the GOP in the state, but only if the party can broaden its appeal and only if party activists accept that the party cannot win without attracting Independent voters.
No frontrunners in GOP
Several months ago, as I was arguing that David Craig represented the GOP's best chance at reclaiming the governor's mansion, many Republican activists challenged my assertion. Both privately and via social media these activists suggested a much stronger candidate existed and would soon enter the race and energize the party. They were referring to Larry Hogan.
Well, Hogan's in the race and he is the "frontrunner." But in a race where 64% of potential primary voters have no preference, there are no frontrunners. Hogan has not lit the fire that many were expecting.
Likewise, Craig has not run the experienced, well managed campaign that I was expecting. Craig sought to shore up the GOP base by taking a distinct right turn (thereby harming his ability to win in November) and Hogan has adopted a play it safe strategy by skipping forum after forum (thereby harming his credibility).
And no GOP candidate has any real success raising money. All four candidates combined could barely reach $1 million - meanwhile, Gansler and Brown are each sitting on multiple millions.
As things stand today, it's hard to see the GOP reclaiming the keys to Government House.
*Though I am an Associate Professor at St. Mary's College, I had no involvement in the development, execution, or analysis of the poll results.