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Away From the Numbers

By Russ Smith | Posted 11/3/2004

This column went to press before results were tabulated, so unlike readers (or maybe not), I have no idea who won the presidential election. But last week, The Sun released a raft of polls that were, at least from my perspective, rather curious.

The presidential survey (Oct. 28), conducted by phone from a small sampling of 602 residents by Ipsos-Public Affairs of Washington, showed a 56-39 percent lead for Sen. John Kerry among registered voters, and a 21-point differential with likely voters. That puts Maryland in the category of Rhode Island and Massachusetts as solid “blue” states, and I don’t believe that’s the case. Maryland was never really in question—although if Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich had sacrificed some quality golf time to actually campaign for President George W. Bush it could’ve been closer—but if Kerry won here by more than a dozen points it’d be surprising.

More interesting was the Oct. 30 poll, which no doubt pained the Sun’s editorial board, showing that presumably the same 602 registered voter approved of slot machines by a margin of 57-41 percent, a result that cut “across ideological lines.” The slothful Ehrlich, who refused to spend any political capital by negotiating with the legislature to put the slot question on the Nov. 2 ballot, incredibly claimed a victory over House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) after the findings were reported. The governor’s spokesman said that Ehrlich “believes that support for slots is even stronger” and that he’ll “play a central role” in the expansion of gambling in Maryland.

How in the world is he going to do that if he refuses to let his constituents decide in an election? Once again, Ehrlich will head to Annapolis in January, butt heads with Busch, and emerge empty-handed after 90 hard-working days.

The Sun hammered home its opposition to slots in an Oct. 28 endorsement of 4th District U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, which praised the six-term Democrat for taking “a more independent path” on entrepreneurial enterprises. Still: “Republican challenger John McKinnis, 30, is properly attacking Mr. Wynn, though, for his enthusiastic support for bringing casino gambling to [Prince George’s County]. If the congressman doesn’t change his stand, a novice such as Mr. McKinnis could become a more attractive option two years from now.”

Right. Wynn, like most of the country’s gerrymandered representatives, has a job for life.

Would it be too much to ask of Ehrlich, whose lethargic support of slots is a key to the state’s future economy, to embrace Wynn next spring and get this issue settled once and for all?

Probably.

But maybe I’m just a crank, and Ehrlich has it all figured out. The Ipsos poll also showed that the incumbent is in fairly good shape if his opponent in 2006 is Mayor Martin O’Malley. Not that The Sun portrayed it that way, headlining Nitkin’s article “Tough race brewing for Ehrlich, survey shows.” Baloney. Yes, this preliminary snapshot puts O’Malley ahead of Ehrlich by 51-44 percent, a result that Nitkin ominously portrays as the governor’s “shaky re-election prospects.”

What’s not at all “shaky” is Ehrlich’s 59 percent approval rating among those registered voters, a figure that’s far more important than O’Malley’s seven-point lead. Traditionally, any incumbent who draws a favorability number above 55 percent is considered a shoo-in to win again, even given the significant advantage Democrats have among voters in the state.

In addition, it doesn’t bode well for O’Malley—if he runs, which is still a matter of conjecture—that he holds a single-digit lead two years before the election. As mayor of a large city, O’Malley has a lot more potential downside in the next two years, depending on daily events. What if the school system continues to blow up on O’Malley’s watch? An increase in murders? Maybe a development scandal? Unlike Ehrlich, the mayor has to, at least theoretically, work every day of the year on both vital and mundane city concerns.

Should he decide to run, O’Malley would be smart to embrace slots as soon as possible—he hasn’t so far—and neutralize an Ehrlich strength that was demonstrated last week by that Ipsos poll.

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