Montgomery County Republicans and Democrats have launched the first heavy salvos of the coming election year, releasing poll results that gave almost everyone, in the unbounded optimism of politics, something to be happy about.
The Democratic poll, conducted Nov. 14-17, showed Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist whipping all prospective primary and general election opponents in mock "horse races." It proved beyond a doubt, said party regulars, that the incumbent was in fighting shape and will be a formidable opponent.
The Republican poll, conducted Aug. 28-30, showed Gilchrist finishing last when voters were asked whether they would support Gilchrist (29 percent), would "elect a new person" (34 percent) or were "undecided" (37 percent). It proved beyond a doubt, said GOP party regulars, that the incumbent was in deep trouble and will be a vulnerable opponent.
No one will be typing up acceptance speeches or throwing in the towel over these poll results, which are looked upon by local political observers as only preliminary indicators. But they herald the burst of political activity expected in January as possible candidates make decisions on whether they will run, and for what offices.
Gilchrist already has conducted fund-raisers and indicated his intent to seek re-election. County councilman David Scull acknowledged in a recent interview that he will announce in early January his decision on whether to oppose Gilchrist.
Republican Del. Luiz Simmons, heartened by his showing in both polls, will test the political waters for a county executive candidacy with his own poll in January. And independent four-term Rockville Mayor William E. Hanna Jr., reportedly being wooed by members of both parties, will decide in January whether to run for county executive, the legislature or the County Council.
Others, like county school board member Marian Greenblatt, are still keeping their intentions secret.
Both polls used samples of similar sizes, 391 for the Democrats and 400 for the Republicans. Demographically, the polls also were similar. About 57 percent of those polled were Democrats, 30 percent were Republicans and the remainder were independents. The majority of those polled listed themselves as moderates, rather than liberals or conservatives.
Most earned between $20,000 and $50,000 annually and 90 percent of those polled were white, while about 5.5 percent were black. More than 40 percent were Protestant, just under 30 percent were Catholic, roughly 10 percent were Jewish.
The Republican poll had been intended for private use by the party, but Central Committee chairman Paul Clark released its results last week to counter the Democratic poll. The GOP poll was conducted by the Washington office of Decision Making Information, the California firm that handled polling for President Ronald Reagan.
It showed 3 percent of those polled giving Gilchrist a job rating of excellent, 40 percent said he was doing a good job, 36 percent said fair, and 12 percent said poor. The rest were undecided. In a favorable/unfavorable question, the GOP poll showed only 47 percent had a favorable impression of Gilchrist, while 29 percent were unfavorably impressed.
"Each of these measures suggests that Gilchrist is vulnerable in the upcoming election," the poll concluded. The summary said Republicans should target voters the poll found to be least supportive of Gilchrist: persons aged 45-64, voters earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, Catholics, residents of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th legislative districts, and conservatives in both the Republican and independent camps.
Name recognition questions showed that less than 10 percent of the people were familiar with the all-Democratic County Council. Montgomery County Republican legislator Robin Ficker was known by more than 60 percent of those polled, but Del. Simmons was known by only 24 percent.
The Democratic poll was commissioned by Jack Sexton, former Democratic Central Committee chairman and treasurer of Gilchrist's 1978 campaign, and conducted by the Washington firm, Potomac Research. It showed Gilchrist with high name recognition (76 percent) and depicted him defeating Scull 51 percent to 22 percent and councilwoman Esther Gelman 51 percent to 18 percent in a primary election.
The poll showed Gilchrist doing better in a general election than Scull. Gilchrist beat Simmons 51 percent to 24 percent while Scull led Simmons 36 percent to 25 percent. In other matchups, Gilchrist led Greenblatt 53 percent to 24 percent while Scull beat Greenblatt 43 percent to 24 percent.
The poll also showed that Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan might have to write off Montgomery County in a senate race against Democrat Paul Sarbanes, the incumbent. Sarbanes led Hogan by 58.3 percent to 30.4 percent.
Gilchrist, in the Democratic poll, got an excellent job rating from 6 percent while 44 percent rated him as good, 33 percent said fair and 8 percent said poor.
Both polls illustrated for the first time that the public apparently takes seriously the county's 19-month long liquor department controversy. Sixty percent of those in the Democratic poll did so. The Republican poll showed that nearly 70 percent would vote to oust Gilchrist, but only if it were proven that Gilchrist violated county personnel hiring procedures.
Marian Greenblatt said she wasn't familiar enough with the poll results to comment on them.
Gilchrist was pleased with the results, according to Ed Rovner, one of his key aides. "He felt that the worst part of the (liquor department) accusations are behind him now," Rovner said. "The cloud has been lifted from his administration and as events are seen in perspective, his lead will probably widen rather than narrow."
Not so, said Simmons, who found both polls enormously encouraging. "We had taken a poll back in August of 1980. We asked a ballot question then and Gilchrist received 63 percent, I got 12 percent and undecided was 25 percent. Now, one year later . . . there has been a net change of 24 percent in my favor," said Simmons.
Scull said he felt the Democratic ballot question results were inevitable when an incumbent is matched against undeclared persons, adding "that will change significantly when there is a campaign."
"Otherwise, it's difficult to assess an in-house poll," Scull quipped.