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Political Animal

Polls

In just under a month, Marylanders will walk into their polling places and decide who will be governor of their state for the next four years. Probably the biggest question regarding this decision will be how many Marylanders decide to go vote. More than anything else, this will likely decide whether Martin O’Malley gets another four years, or whether Robert Ehrlich will make a triumphant return to the governor’s mansion.

Until then, the media will make a big deal about the horse race, spitting out poll after poll after poll. In the last few months, we have seen polls calling the race a neck-and-neck statistical tie and a poll that gave O’Malley a somewhat unbelievable 11-point lead. It’s almost like we’re living 2006 over again, sort of an electoral version of Groundhog Day.

From a post-election 2006 Baltimore Sun story by Sumathi Reddy:

The poll results that poured in during the final week of politicking were puzzling.
Two had Baltimore City Mayor Martin O’Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich in a virtual dead heat in the gubernatorial race. Another had O’Malley leading with a 10-percentage point lead, others by just a few percentage points.

Yet O’Malley in the end won by a comfortable seven points. And here we are again, playing out the same scenario—except that some of the challenges pollsters faced four years ago are no different now, and in some cases, they’re worse.

For starters, as we all know, Maryland is a pretty darn Democratic state. GOP consultant Kevin Igoe said this to the Sun back in 2006: “This is just a blue state getting bluer on Election Day. . . . There’s just no way to separate this from the national mood. I don’t think there is anything strategically or tactically that the Ehrlich campaign . . . could have done differently to have really had much effect on those votes.”

Sure, it’s a Republican-trending year, the pundits (except for this one) all say repeatedly. But for starters, Maryland isn’t a big Tea Party state—ask Republican gubernatorial challenger Brian Murphy how that worked out for him. The Free State gets many of its jobs from the federal government, and for a government employee to be a Tea Party crank, you’d also have to believe that the chickens are organizing and rallying for Jim Perdue.

Secondly, Marylanders are a lot better educated and a lot wealthier than residents of many other states. The recession hasn’t hit here as hard, and even though times are bad, it’s hard to say that the incumbent has made drastic enough mistakes to turn him out on the issues that Ehrlich is trying to ride back to power. Ehrlich still hasn’t explained completely how he’d make up for the money lost should he manage to roll back the sales tax increase passed under O’Malley, and the state’s structural budget deficit doesn’t look like it’s going to change much for the better any time soon.

On top of that, for the most part, pollsters weren’t able to accurately assess the turnout of the state’s African-American voters in 2006, and they’re even less likely to be able to gauge it now. Without a good handle on what kind of numbers black Marylanders will put up, just about any poll estimate is a shot in the dark. And there is no official breakdown of the actual vote by race in Maryland; the best any organization can do is take exit polls, which have their own problems.

In 2006, exit polls reported a black turnout of 23 percent, which is considered to be a high figure (but understandable given the political climate that year, with O’Malley vs. Ehrlich and Cardin-Steele on the ballot as well). This year there’s no high-profile Senate race on the ticket—Barbara Mikulski has been, in terms of the sheer number of votes, the most popular politician in the state since the retirement of William Donald Schaefer, and is not likely to even break a sweat disposing of Republican challenger Eric Wargotz. So for O’Malley, the big challenge is to find a way to motivate the African-American base, which—presto!—explains the visit to Bowie this week by President Obama, who can still fire up black crowds better than any politician in America.

Lastly, the biggest problem with polling in the modern era has to do with technology. Specifically, more Americans are making cell phones their only phones, and cell phone numbers aren’t available to pollsters. It’s as if an entire segment of the population simply disappears off pollster radar. That segment also tends to skew younger and African-America as well, thus creating a sampling disparity that simply cannot be ignored.

What this all means is that you can probably ignore a lot of horse-race talk between now and Election Day, given how wrong they’ve been in the past, and possibly how wrong they’ll be in a little less than a month. What it also means is that no matter whom you prefer in this election, you should probably get your butt out of the chair and vote. Look at it as a way not just to register your opinion about the direction of the state in the coming years, but also how to stick it to pollsters and us in the media. And who doesn’t like to do that?

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