Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes released a poll today that shows him with a substantial lead over all challengers in both the September primary and the November general elections, including a lead of 35 percentage points over his toughest opponent, Republican Robert A. Pascal.
The Hughes poll also contains the results of several strategy questions.
Those questions, which his campaign staff unintentionally released, then tried to reclaim, but later said they wanted out in the spirit of "openness, honesty and frankness," focus in part on some negative perceptions associated with Hughes' opponents.
Two of those questions gauge the response of voters to former governor Marvin Mandel and appear to indicate that Hughes' campaign strategists are considering making an issue of ties between the former governor, convicted of political corruption, and Hughes' two major challengers.
Taken Aug. 6, the survey of 480 likely voters shows Hughes has increased his margin over Pascal since previous polls. If the election were held today Hughes would receive 56 percent of the vote to Pascal's 21 percent, according to the poll. Another 23 percent of the respondents were undecided. In a May poll taken by Hughes, the governor led Pascal by 52 to 23 percent.
Name recognition continues to be a problem for Pascal, the two-term executive of Anne Arundel County. In both Hughes polls, Pascal is known only by 41 percent of those surveyed, compared to over 90 percent who recognize the governor's name.
Questions about how people would vote in a Democratic primary produced the most surprising results, since it showed State Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore), widely seen as Hughes' only major Democratic opponent, to be trailing Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelley, with 6 percent to Kelley's 10 percent.
The results, if accurate, would indicate that Hughes has good reason for the confidence he has been displaying of late as he tours the state. "The best thing from Harry's point of view is that each time we've done a poll he's picked up points," said Hughes' pollster Dick Dresner, of the New York-based Dresner, Morris and Tortorello Research firm. "The voters of Maryland seem to think that Harry Hughes may not be the most exciting guy in the world but he is an honest and effective governor."
Pascal's campaign staff members insisted that the poll result was skewed because a series of negative questions about Hughes' opponents came just before the Hughes-Pascal ballot question.
Pascal said today that he does not put much stock in polls, least of all by his opponents. "Mr. Hughes better be very wary of polls because this time four years ago he didn't even show up in them," Pascal said. "We are going to give him the surprise of his life. Before the election, I'm going to be a household word, like Pascal celery."
Pascal also attacked Hughes for raising the possible issue of Mandel. Pascal has known Mandel for many years and tried to help him win an early release from federal prison. In the poll, a plurality of voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was "close to Mandel."
"Marvin Mandel gave him [Hughes] the opportunity to put bread on his table by appointing him secretary of transportation and a launching pad for his career," Pascal said. "The difference between Hughes and me is that I don't kick a man when he's down."
McGuirk has said he believes he is doing much better than the Hughes poll indicates and the only poll he will believe is "the one on election day."
The poll showed two areas of weakness for Hughes: voters would more likely support a candidate who favors the death penalty, like Pascal and McGuirk and unlike Hughes; and voters do not strongly associate him with having reduced taxes and balanced the budget.
When asked whether Hughes "deserves another term" without putting him up against any specific opponent, only 29 percent of those surveyed agreed, with 49 percent uncommitted on the issue.
"When you offer the incumbent against anyone else they could choose, that's a tough task," Dresner, the pollster, said. "People in Maryland like Harry Hughes; they just don't think he walks on water."