By Aaron C. Davis, John Wagner and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:53 PM
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has opened a significant lead over former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as newly energized Democrats have turned what appeared to be a dead heat into a double-digit advantage for O'Malley, a Washington Post poll has found.
Less than five weeks before the election, 52 percent of those most likely to vote support O'Malley, and 41 percent back Ehrlich. In May, likely voters were divided evenly between the contenders.
Ehrlich has the support of almost every GOP voter in the state, and he is winning independents by a wide margin in his effort to reclaim the Maryland governorship he lost four years ago. But that combined slice of the electorate, which is propelling outsider insurgents elsewhere, appears to be too little in Maryland. The former governor and congressman is failing to draw the cross-party appeal that vaulted him to victory in 2002.
Instead, despite widespread concern among Marylanders about the economy and direction of the state, Democrats have moved solidly behind O'Malley. And he is more popular now than at any time a Post poll has been taken since 2004.
In recent months, O'Malley has moved to invigorate his party's base by adopting a campaign theme that asks voters to reject a return to Republican control. Four out of five Maryland Democrats say they are enthusiastic about voting for him, according to the poll. O'Malley has also emerged as the candidate more trusted by voters on the top issue in the race: Maryland's economy.
Ehrlich has limited room to attract voters on economic issues. When it comes to dealing with Maryland's $1.1 billion budget shortfall, 43 percent of likely voters say they trust Ehrlich; 40 percent side with O'Malley.
The growing gap revealed by the Post poll reframes what had come to be viewed as a potential horse race backed by wealthy national interests into a question of what Ehrlich can do to turn things around in the final weeks of the campaign.
For O'Malley, the big lead could create another problem: keeping voters engaged. If his supporters come to see his reelection as inevitable, they may think it's less important to vote.
"I think it's close. I plan to vote for him," said Gerry Bennefield, 65, of Brandywine. "I think he's in tune with the regular people instead of big business."
That description echoed a portrayal of O'Malley and criticism of Ehrlich in a Democratic TV ad that began airing last week in the Washington region. Bennefield, a Democrat and retired food service director, said she'd seen the ad, but it wasn't why she had decided to vote for O'Malley.
Bennefield said she was impressed with the way O'Malley has kept a four-year freeze on in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities and with the way he made some budget cuts.
"More than anything else, I think he's been honest about where we are at," she said. "Things are pretty rough. I'm hoping for a turnaround, you know, but you just got to tighten your belt."
Nancy Powell, 73, a registered Democrat and poll respondent who lives in Bethesda, fits the profile of a voter Ehrlich had hoped to win over. Powell said she has voted for "civic-minded Republicans" in the past, including former long-serving representative Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).
Powell said she is only "moderately enthusiastic" about O'Malley and might have considered voting for a Republican for governor if the right candidate had emerged. O'Malley "hasn't really captured my imagination," Powell said, "but he seems to have been pretty steady in a difficult time."
With moderate Democrats such as Powell lining up for O'Malley, Ehrlich's potential path to victory is growing increasingly narrow.
The Republican is winning handily among the state's independent voters, 54 to 34 percent, but there aren't enough of them in Maryland to tip the balance.
Fully 57 percent of all voters in the state are registered Democrats, and half of all probable voters identify as Democrats more generally, or about double the proportion saying they're closer to the GOP.
In 2002, Ehrlich was lifted over his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in large part by scoring 22 percent among Democrats, according to a Washington Post exit poll that year. Ehrlich, in his losing reelection bid four years later, mustered 15 percent of the Democratic vote. Now, only 10 percent of self-identified Democrats say they back Ehrlich in the rematch.
For Ehrlich to win this year, political observers have suggested that he must run a nearly perfect campaign, ramping up his performance from four years ago not only in Democratic bastions such as Montgomery County but in several other places. The poll suggests Ehrlich is falling short on all counts.
Ehrlich launched his campaign with an acknowledgment that he must improve his standing in Montgomery, the state's largest jurisdiction. He kicked off his campaign there in April, picked a running mate from the county in June and has made several high-profile visits since, pitching his pro-business message in a jurisdiction with an economy less dependent on the federal government than it used to be.
Yet Ehrlich attracts only 27 percent of the Montgomery vote in the Post poll, and O'Malley is drawing 70 percent. That's less than the 37 percent of Montgomery voters that the Republican drew in his 2006 loss and 38 percent in his 2002 victory.
There and elsewhere Ehrlich has talked extensively about taxes, but voters say that's not the most important issue for the next governor. About 41 percent of likely voters say the state's economy is the No. 1 issue; taxes are tied for second place with education, at 16 percent.
Ehrlich has said that his goal for Montgomery is in the low 40s. Although heavily Democratic, the jurisdiction, because of its size, is home to more Republicans than any other county in the state but one, and it has far more independents than any other Maryland county.
Perhaps most crucial for Ehrlich is replicating his 2002 performance - or at least coming close - in the Baltimore suburbs, which are home to many blue-collar Democrats who have demonstrated a willingness to vote for a Republican.
In 2002, Ehrlich, then a congressman from the area, trounced Townsend in the Baltimore suburbs, 65 to 35 percent.
In 2006, O'Malley was able to cut into those margins, drawing 45 percent of the vote in the Baltimore suburbs to Ehrlich's 54 percent. At the time, O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore and popular beyond the city's borders, thanks in part to an expansive Baltimore TV market that made him a regular on the nightly news.
Given the anxiety over the economy this year, Ehrlich's camp is hoping to recapture some of the Democrats he lost in the Baltimore suburbs four years ago. The Post poll suggests he has a long way to go.
In the poll, Ehrlich attracted 55 percent of voters in the region - about the same number as in 2006 - and O'Malley drew 38 percent.
Ehrlich aides say the campaign's greatest push in the final weeks will be to drive up turnout of "Reagan Democrats" in the suburban counties around Baltimore.
But O'Malley has been airing TV ads since July in the Baltimore area, first positive messages about his first-term accomplishments and then ones that sought to undermine Ehrlich's credibility.
In areas where he has been on TV the most, O'Malley is seen as a more honest and stronger leader than he was when The Post asked similar questions in May. In the Baltimore suburbs, Ehrlich has slipped as the candidate with the upper hand on the economy. Even Republicans have soured a touch on Ehrlich there, although three in four still side with him on the issue.
And in the voter-rich areas of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where O'Malley has spent an increasing amount of time in recent weeks and started airing ads last week, voters empathize more with the challenges the incumbent faces and think he is the candidate with more of a vision for the state.
More voters than ever - 64 percent - have a favorable view of O'Malley, and 26 percent have an unfavorable one. Ehrlich draws a 55 percent favorable rating to 32 percent unfavorable. O'Malley's highest favorability rating comes as more voters than ever - 49 percent - say things in Maryland have gotten pretty seriously onto the wrong track; 40 percent say they are on the right track.
O'Malley is seen as the candidate who would do a better job on working effectively with the legislature. He is also seen as the better candidate to deal with crime, taxes, education, the economy and the environment.
O'Malley also maintains a commanding lead among female voters, 56 to 38 percent. That is nearly the same margin by which O'Malley beat Ehrlich among female voters four years ago, according to exit polling.
The Post poll, conducted Sept. 22 to 26, also showed O'Malley is getting 49 percent of male voters' support to 45 percent for Ehrlich. In 2006, Ehrlich edged out O'Malley among men, 51 to 48 percent.
A total of 1,448 randomly selected adults in Maryland were interviewed, including 1,196 registered voters and 730 voters likely to cast ballots. Results among registered voters have a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is four points for likely voters.
The Post poll shows there is no significant enthusiasm gap between Ehrlich and O'Malley supporters. Eighty-four percent of all Ehrlich supporters reported being "very" or "fairly" enthusiastic about their choice, and 80 percent of O'Malley supporters said the same thing. Among registered voters, 34 percent said they were "very enthused" about their candidate, and Ehrlich has a small edge among likely voters.
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Assistant staff polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.