Maryland Democrats have three candidates for governor—one who can act, one who can talk and one who can think. Together they might make a terrific single candidate. But the voters think the sum of the parts does not add up to a whole.
We’ve seen this campaign three times before: The lieutenant governor and heir-designate numerically out front but not sufficiently enough to plant his flag and stake his claim. In two cases (Blair Lee 3d and Melvin Steinberg) they were defeated in primaries by candidates trailing in the polls. And in the third, the general election proved too tough for a weak primary winner (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend).
It’s axiomatic in political polling that any two reputable polls conducted at about the same time will show essentially the same results. Thus, the parallel polls conducted by The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post have put an early curse on Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. He’s been anointed the front-runner—by an elastic 20 points, no less. Brown is the fourth of the seven modern lieutenant governors to attempt an advance across the State House hall to the governor’s office.
The hex sign is that almost half the voters, at this point, couldn’t give a fig about the candidates or the June 24 election. That leaves a bunch of voters up for grabs and a lot of ground for Brown to lose. In the Sun Poll, 40 percent of the voters say they’re undecided and ditto 43 percent in the Post survey.
The runner-up in both polls is Attorney Gen. Douglas Gansler. He posts 14 percent in the Sun poll and 15 percent in the Post survey. But that’s not the bad news for Gansler, who has $6.3 million to help overcome the recognition deficit. The cropper arrives in the Post poll in two questions that go to the heart of the character issue. The first deals with the beach party where he was photographed in a setting where there was suspected underage drinking. Twenty-four percent of the respondents gave him a thumbs down, saying the incident would be a major factor in casting their votes for governor. The other involved allegations of reckless back-seat driving in his State Police-chauffeured vehicle and 32 percent said the behavior would influence their votes.
The third candidate, Del. Heather Mizeur, of Montgomery County, is the rearguard in the parade, with 10 percent in the Sun poll and eight percent in the Post survey. Mizeur has agreed to accept public financing and her spending is capped at about $2.6 million. She is underfinanced by comparison with Brown ($7.1 million) and Gansler. But if biology is destiny, being a woman, and gay at that, in the year the glass ceiling is supposed to crack, could help lift her from the back of the pack.
For the moment, though, it is cautionary to note that this early in the game the twin polls are more a measure of recognition than any deeply fixed emotions about any of the three candidates for governor of Maryland. In the broadest sense, the campaign really hasn’t yet begun.
It is important to note, too, that published polls in newspapers are different from private polls conducted by and for candidates. Published polls give voters an idea of who is ahead in a race and the candidates’ popularity factor. Private polls are about winning elections. They are rich in detail and, properly understood, serve as guidebooks for conducting winning campaigns. Professionally conducted private polls help to formulate campaign strategy, shape the tone and tactic of speeches and other policy pronouncements and determine media strategy and message that create all of those annoying TV commercials.
This is an unusual election year in that the primary election has been advanced to June from its customary set-aside in September where it had been since the late-1960s. The candidates are preoccupied with the General Assembly session that concludes April 7 and leaves only about 12 weeks for active campaigning and the deconstructionist mischief of full-blown media advertising. The problem with attack advertising is that it works. And the voters are more concerned right now with the weather, jobs, health care and education rather than who’ll be installed next year to deal with them.
It is during that 12-week period that the opposition will begin to trim Brown’s sails and the numbers will begin to narrow. Brown has no where to go but down and Gansler and Mizeur have plenty of room and time to move up. Brown so far has been playing it safe, using the same playbook as his predecessor-lieutenant governors—employ the advantages of incumbency and the photo-op grandeur of the State House, pile up endorsements, avoid controversy and tip-toe around the issues because the only thing a candidate can do is make a mistake.
Maryland’s lieutenant governor has a vague and ambiguous role, deliberately so. When the office was revived in 1970 by constitutional amendment, it was designed so that the occupant would have only those duties that were specifically assigned by the governor. It was a short leash to avoid policy disagreements and freelance politics. In most cases it worked. (Steinberg disagreed with Gov. William Donald Schaefer over tax policy. Schaefer froze him out and helped cost him the 1994 election to the governorship. Gov. Harry R. Hughes dumped Samuel Bogley after one term in 1982 in a dispute over abortion policy.)
Gansler has been hammering Brown over the bollixed rollout of Maryland’s health care plan and the effects of the focused attack have been measurable but not lethal: 24 percent of the Post poll’s respondents associate the rollout’s failures with Brown and say it will influence their votes. Brown had been assigned the role of assembling and launching the health care program that’s cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and was supposed to be a model for the nation. Instead it was a bust and bested by Kentucky.
While Brown and other state officials have waltzed around the issue, Gansler has talked himself into trouble and an abundance of major missteps. Mizeur, by contrast, has presented the broadest and most detailed programs, often mimicked by her rivals to one degree or another. She wants, for example, to legalize marijuana and use the tax proceeds to fund Pre-K programs. Remember “slots for tots”? This time it’s “pot for tots.”
Politics is a form-follows-function kind of business. Primary elections are different from general elections. Primaries are based on organizing the vote and getting it to the polls on election day and generals revolve more around issues and personalities. Brown has racked up an impressive list of endorsements which make up the machinery of the Democrats’ voter delivery system. Gansler lately has begun countering with endorsements of his own. Mizeur has support among activist women’s groups and environmentalists (she opposes fracking and actually owns an organic farm on the Eastern Shore.)
Voting is triage. Candidates know what votes they have and don’t have. They go after those that can be persuaded. And according to both polls, nearly half the voters are undecided and presumably waiting to be convinced. More appropriately, the candidates up to this point haven’t spent enough money or time to spread their messages and get widely known.
In the pathology of politics, the pressure is on Brown, as leader of the pack, to maintain the momentum the polls say he has. That is part of the curse. For the remainder of the primary election season he will be the target of double-barreled attacks from both Gansler and Mizeur. As old Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro Jr. used to say, “He who runs out front gets hit in back.”