By John Wagner, Aaron C. Davis and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 10, 2010; A01
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has an early lead in his bid for reelection but faces voters who are anxious about the economy and focused on issues that could help Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reclaim his old job, according to a new Washington Post poll.
As the campaign begins in earnest, O'Malley (D) holds a 49 to 41 percent lead among registered voters, according to the poll. But among those who say they are certain to vote in November, the race is a dead heat, with both candidates drawing 47 percent.
The numbers suggest that voters could be surprisingly open to appeals from both sides, despite how well-known the two major candidates are. Nearly half say they are undecided or could change their minds before Election Day. The results also suggest a key to the race could be whether O'Malley is able to mobilize Democrats, particularly in vote-rich Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where he dominated Ehrlich (R) in 2006.
The poll reveals several potential advantages for Ehrlich, who lost to O'Malley four years ago, 53 to 46 percent. Ehrlich has the edge in voter trust on the state budget and taxes, and when it comes to the top issue, the economy, 43 percent trust the former governor to do a better job, 39 percent the current one. More than half of voters say the state is on the wrong track, and nearly half say O'Malley has not accomplished much in the top job.
Also, the political landscape is far different from the one Ehrlich faced four years ago, when he was the governor with high approval ratings running for reelection. The economy is now the most frequently cited issue, whereas education was the clear top issue in 2006. And the energy that was squarely behind Democrats nationally in 2006 and 2008 has diminished.
Ehrlich's attempted comeback has been inspired in part by a string of high-profile Republican victories in states that President Obama carried in 2008, including Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Ehrlich has said that after what happened in 2008, he thought his political career was over, but he has since come to believe that even left-leaning Maryland could be receptive to a more conservative candidate, given the national political mood.
Still, O'Malley maintains several advantages running as an incumbent in a heavily Democratic state. He has a 58 percent job-approval rating -- his highest in Washington Post polls since becoming governor -- and seems to have weathered the dour national mood better than many counterparts.
More voters also say O'Malley understands their problems and can be better trusted than Ehrlich on education, the environment and crime.
On the campaign trail, both candidates have sought to parlay their strengths. Ehrlich is making near-daily visits to small businesses that have shed jobs during the recession, saying O'Malley-backed tax increases are partly to blame for their problems. In the poll, 62 percent of voters say their family's taxes have gone up in recent years.
O'Malley has cast the race in broader terms, arguing that he is better suited to keep "moving Maryland forward." Although he is stressing the importance of job creation, O'Malley also highlights a No. 1 ranking received by the state's schools and lower crime rates. On Friday, his campaign launched the first sharply critical ad, a radio spot seeking to undermine Ehrlich's claims about his fiscal stewardship during his four years in office.Securing the base
A key to the race might be Obama voters -- largely Democrats who came out in 2008 for the president but are not yet sold on O'Malley. The poll found somewhat more enthusiasm among Ehrlich voters, with his supporters more apt than O'Malley's to be satisfied with their choices and committed to voting in November.
O'Malley still must also win over voters such as Al Joyner of Randallstown, a retired University of Maryland social worker who voted for the governor four years ago but is now noncommittal.
O'Malley "made some promises he didn't fulfill and needs to account for that," said Joyner, who described himself as a left-leaning independent. Joyner blames the governor for not controlling rising electric bills -- a nuisance O'Malley campaigned heavily against in 2006.
Joyner said that if he thought Ehrlich could be "a little more sensitive" on education and environmental issues, he could vote for the Republican.
Dennis Medlock of St. Michaels also called himself undecided but said he'd probably vote for O'Malley.
"I don't know if it would be a vote for O'Malley as much as against Ehrlich," said Medlock, 72, who works part time as a government contractor. "I haven't firmly decided, but O'Malley seems to have managed reasonably well, given the circumstances."
One opening for Ehrlich is among independents, a group he is targeting heavily. When the Republican was victorious in 2002, he won the group by 11 percentage points. When he lost four years later, his margin was sliced to two, according to an exit poll. At the outset of this year's race, Ehrlich is winning by 15 percentage points among independent voters.
But Ehrlich's win in 2002 was also fueled by sizable appeal among the state's large bloc of Democrats. In his victory, a Washington Post voter poll showed Ehrlich winning 22 percent of Democrats; he's now at 14 percent among these voters.
The poll shows little has changed since 2006 in the candidates' regional strengths. O'Malley holds large leads in the Washington suburbs and in Baltimore, where he was mayor for seven years, and Ehrlich runs stronger in the Baltimore suburbs and in less-populated western and eastern parts of the state.
But both have work to do to shore up their regional bases.
In Prince George's, 63 percent support O'Malley, well shy of the 79 percent who voted for him there four years ago. (About one in eight voters in the county is undecided.) At the same time, the majority-African American jurisdiction presents a sizable opportunity for the governor, as the county has 69,000 more Democratic voters -- and about 2,400 fewer Republicans -- than it did in 2006.
When Ehrlich became Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, he racked up large margins in the suburban counties that ring Baltimore against then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who was widely regarded as a mediocre campaigner. But he's now closer to the levels he got in 2006, when O'Malley ran far more competitively in these suburbs.
Ehrlich's campaign strategists said he must perform better in the Washington area to win this year and have said he thinks he can make inroads in Montgomery. The poll showed Ehrlich drawing 29 percent of voters there, but he attracted 37 percent in 2006.Anger less of a factor
The deep anti-Washington sentiment that threatens incumbents across the nation is less of a factor in Maryland than it is elsewhere. Most Maryland voters are dissatisfied or angry about how the federal government works, but they are significantly less apt to say so than voters elsewhere. A majority -- 54 percent -- approve of the new overhaul of the nation's health-care system, and 56 percent say the federal stimulus package has helped or will help the state's economy.
A challenge for Ehrlich will be keeping his supporters engaged until November, particularly those who are motivated less by his candidacy than by the national mood and a desire to see something different from O'Malley.
O'Malley aides say his campaign is preparing to aggressively promote Maryland's new early voting law, which provides a six-day window to cast ballots before Election Day, in an effort to bolster Democratic turnout.
That is just one way aides say they hope to capitalize on war chests built by O'Malley and the state Democratic Party in the past four years, a period in which Ehrlich has been idle and the Maryland GOP has struggled to stay afloat financially.
In January, the governor reported $5.7 million in the bank, and Ehrlich reported $151,529 in a campaign account that he has kept open since 2006. O'Malley has started spending some of that money to shape the race.
Before facing off in November, O'Malley and Ehrlich must survive primaries against lesser-known opponents.
In the Democratic contest, O'Malley faces a challenger on his right: George W. Owings III, a former state delegate from Southern Maryland and veterans affairs secretary under Ehrlich.
Brian Murphy, a Montgomery business investor, is challenging Ehrlich in the Republican primary, arguing that he represents something new and has better business acumen.
The poll, conducted May 3 to 6, did not include trial heats in either primary but provided one glimmer of hope for Owings and Murphy: Nearly half, 45 percent, say they are not satisfied with their choices of O'Malley and Ehrlich and wish they had more candidates to choose among.
In all, 1,030 randomly selected Maryland adults were interviewed by telephone, including 851 registered voters. The margin of sampling error for the registered voters is plus or minus four percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.