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Prof. Herbert Smith on the Maryland Primary

Free Media
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Western Maryland College
Campaign 2000
Live: "Free Media"
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Friday, February 11, 2000; 4:30 p.m. EST

What are Maryland voters looking for in a presidential candidate? What issues will decide how they vote in Tuesday's primary? While the polls show Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush as virtual shoo-ins for the nomination, the state contests on Super Tuesday will make a huge difference in how the respective campaigns approach the national contests?

Prof. Herbert Smith is chairman of the political science department at Western Maryland College and specializes in teaching about state and local governments, national elections and Maryland elections and campaigns. Smith joined "Free Media" to talk about the Maryland primary and how the Free State fits into the overall framework of Campaign 2000 on Tuesday, March 7. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good afternoon, Prof. Smith, and welcome. What are you expecting from Maryland voters today? What issues do you think are sending them to the polls?

Herbert Smith: Well, as a political science professor who has gotten extremely tired of comparing weak American voter turnout to that European democracies, I hoe this preview of spring will bring primary voters out in droves. But as a realist, I'd be extremely pleased with 40 percent. The classic issues are distinctly muted in both contests...the campaigns have devolved into matters of personalities and tactics by in large.

Washington, D.C.: How strong has the support been for the insurgent candidacies of John McCain and Bill Bradley?

Herbert Smith: Maryland Democrats have something of a tradition of supporting insurgencies...Wallace in 1972, Brown in 1976, and Tsongas handily defeated Clinton here in 1992. But Bradley is trailing badly in the polls I've seen. For the Republicans, McCain should benefit from his extensive media buys in Virginia last week. That spills over into the Maryland-D.C. suburbs. Still there's not been much campaigning on a personal level because of the Super Tuesday competition...Bradley has been here twice. But Gore's support seems solid. The wild card is what impact independents will have in the Republican primary. In the past, they've been closed. This is the first year it's been open to them...still, only 11 percent of the Maryland registered electorate is independent.

Gainesville, Fla.: How important will the anti-Clinton feeling be in this election? My own personal observation is that it only exists among the 30 percent that never did like Clinton. Do you think it is more pervasive than that?

Herbert Smith: I think the anti-Clinton vote will account for a considerable share of the Bradley total...he hasn't really mustered a compelling reason to vote for him other than he hasn't served a heart beat away from Clinton for eight years...On the Republican side, well the president, despite his many moves to the center on policy (welfare reform, Defense of Marriage Act), hasn't mustered much there.

Richmond, Va.: What is voter turnout expected to be like today?

Herbert Smith: Overall, voter turnout in Maryland is projected at 35 to 40 percent and I think that's probably about right. There hasn't been much campaign activity and the media buys have been scanty.

Free Media: Can you explain the rationale behind Maryland joining the "Super/Mega/Titanic Tuesday" primary? And what do you think will happen now that Maryland hasn't seemed to get much publicity or attention as a result, what will be the upshot for the next presidential election? Will the powers that be rethink their position?

Herbert Smith: I hope the powers that be reconsider this one. Maryland is a superb state for testing potential presidents in terms of accessibility, media markets, and population diversity. Like most political scientists, it's hard to defend a process where states such as Iowa and New Hampshire gain such an advantage just by being first. And, of course, this year South Carolina of all places gained considerable prominence!

Baltimore, Md.: I'm always bothered when politicians and analysts refer to "the African-American vote" or "the Hispanic vote" or "the women's vote," as though such diverse groups of people with different ideas and concerns vote as a monolith. And it seems as though those demographics, which have been traditionally associated with the Democratic Party, are shifting toward more conservative positions. What do you think accounts for this?

Herbert Smith: The traditional labels "liberal" and "conservative" are far from monolithic today...perhaps voters are finally wising up to the essential pragmatism of American politicians or perhaps voters themselves are pragmatic!

Also understand that few groups are totally cohesive but in political science we talk about trends and tendencies...when that gets translated in the media, it's inevitably simplified both in concept and language.

Charlottesville, Va.: Why is Montgomery County so darn liberal? Especially, why is so much more liberal than Northern Virginia?

Herbert Smith: One the most affluent and educated subdivisions in the country, Montgomery County is not "so darn liberal." It has a Republican congresswoman and a very viable two-party system....basically, Montgomery is "good government" oriented...with a taste for the whimsical at times...remember, it once sent Robin Ficker to the Maryland House of Delegates!

Charlottesville, Va.: How big of an impact does Maryland's large black middle class have on state politics? How do they differ from poorer, more urban black voters?

Herbert Smith: African-Americans make up at least a quarter of Maryland's population and a good 30 percent of the Democratic Primary makeup. At the top of the ticket, there's not much of a class difference...support for Clinton was close to 90 percent in 1996...as you go down further on the ballot, there are some differences.

Laurel, Md.: Do "open" primaries essentially render party affiliation meaningless? If so, do "open" primaries further weaken the two party system?

Herbert Smith: Of course...that was the original intent of "open" primaries...they're a relict of the Progressive movement that sought to dilute party power in American politics...

But consider this, in terms of attitude, a plurality (about 40 percent) of Americans self-designate themselves independents in surveys of public opinion. And in terms of behavior, well over a majority split their general election ticket. Parties have enormously declined in importance over the past fifty years....how could Ross Perot gain close to 20 percent of the national vote in 1992 otherwise...

Free Media: Do you think it's McCain as a candidate who is responsible for the massive voter turnout in some primary states, or do people just like a race?

Herbert Smith: I think McCain tapped into a pervasive yearning for a candidate voters could believe in, despite issue, party, and ideological differences. Most Americans are concerned about the influence of money in our campaigns and in government...even though that doesn't show up in the polls. We are proud of our system (I have the poll numbers to verify that somewhere in this cluttered office!) and the renting of the Lincoln bedroom or the massing of a private $70 million campaign warchest runs directly counter to that sentiment. I think McCain made a crucial mistake when he went off message and began to spin into who's the bigger bigot.

Free Media: With a fairly popular Democratic governor and a popular Democratic lieutenant governor, Maryland likely to vote Democratic in the fall. How strong is the Republican Party in Maryland?

Herbert Smith: In 1992 and 1996 Maryland was ranked with Hawaii and the District of Columbia in Republican strategy...while the statewide Republican Party has shown some growth in the early 1990s, Sauerbrey's defeat in 1998 put some retrograde motion into that. Gore should win here with ease...Maryland should be among his top five states.

New York, N.Y.: It seems pretty clear who's going to win the primaries today – Gore and Bush. But how big an indicator do you think primaries are for the general election? Can you look at primary turnout and in any way accurately predict how many voters will turn out in November?

Herbert Smith: Not really...Basically the process this year was an "Establishment fix" in both parties...the process was truncated and compressed which significantly favors front-runners and established names...which coincidentally are Bush and Gore!

But hopefully with an open presidential seat, turnout will be up from 1996 when it totalled only 49 percent on the voting age population...we cast 8 million less ballots in 1996 than in 1992.

New York, N.Y.: Do you think Al Gore has enough appeal to attract the Independents and moderate Republicans that McCain was attracting? How much of an anti-Bush or an anti-Gore vote do you anticipate will happen in the fall, both nationwide and in Maryland?

Herbert Smith: I think it was interesting and telling that when Bradley charged that Gore was a conservative, Gore barely disputed him...obviously he's assimilated the electorate appeal of the "New Democrat." But Bush has gone more to the right to win in South Carolina...that could be a problem come November.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think it will take to turn around the trend of low voter turnout? Do you think Internet voting, like they're doing in Arizona, would help?

Herbert Smith: I just was in my senior seminar on American politics...every student had voted absentee (of course, they're political science majors). We were discussing this very point. First, a caution. As I recall, the highest voter turnout in the Weimar Republic elected Hitler Chancellor. With that being said, we must recognize that turnouts below 50 percent, as in 1996, are simply not acceptable for a viable democracy. It's simply a matter of a condition (citizen distrust and apathy) turning into a very real pathology. You might ask what's the danger? Well, the whole concept of mandate, the core of democratic legitimacy is at stake. So we need to do something. Perhaps making the presidential election day a national holiday would help...states on the far west have increased absentee voting far beyond eastern standards. The media could pitch in as well. There's been an apocalyptic (my spell check doesn't work but you get the idea) quality to this campaign that is brain-numbing...McCain is dead. No, he's alive... No. he's dead again. Stop relying on spin and start getting the story the old-fashioned way of actually going out and talking to voters...let them construct the campaign reality.

Washington, D.C.: What are the main issues Maryland voters are thinking about as they cast their ballots? Are they – and I imagine this would change from area to area around the state – concerned with certain issues more than the country overall?

Herbert Smith: Although crime and the economy have topped the public opinion surveys, I think the latter is, as it's usually the case, the major issue. And that's a definite plus (so far) for the vice president. I wonder though, with the stock market heading south and gas prices rising, how long the economic carnival will last...if that happens, then things can change quickly.

Rockville, Md.: One problem with Maryland is that the state cannot decide whether they want to be considered a northern or Southern state. Maryland likes to boast of a booming economy, cities, independent thinking, and equality (asserting that they are northern). However, when it comes time to vote, most Marylanders will still vote for Bush, Jr., unlike their northern counterparts. What gives?

Free Media: This question came in for a discussion this morning and we didn't get to it.

Herbert Smith: Huh? Maryland is a safe Democratic state..usually voting 4 percent higher than the national Democratic average.

Free Media: That was our last question today for Prof. Herbert Smith, chairman of the political science department at Western Maryland College. Thanks to Prof. Smith, and to everyone who joined us.

Tune in Thursday at noon EST, when Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) will be online to talk about science education and science curriculum overhaul in schools.

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