Friday, September 24, 2010

The Lay Of The Political Landscape

Looking at voter registration figures revealed a few patterns that might help us better understand the challenges facing both gubernatorial candidates in the 2010 election season.

Back in 2002, when Bob Ehrlich became the first Republican elected governor in 36 years, Democrats comprised 56 percent of all registered voters. Republicans hovered around 30 percent of the electorate, and “unaffiliated” voters clocked in at 13 percent.

As of August 2010, Democratic registration was still at about 56 percent. But unaffiliated voters now comprise 15 percent of the electorate, and Republican registration had fallen under 27 percent.

The hard numbers tell an even more interesting story.

Today there are nearly 380,000 more registered Democrats in Maryland than in 2002 – a 24 percent increase. Moreover, Republicans have added only 77,000 voters – a 9 percent increase. Percentage-wise, the biggest gains were seen among unaffiliated voters, who picked up more than 160,000 new voters, a 44 percent increase.

These numbers tell us two things.

First, Martin O’Malley’s biggest challenge is enthusiasm, not numbers. He has the electorate he needs to win, but whether or not he can inspire them to show up and vote remains an unanswered question.

The 2010 primary election results illustrate how big this challenge is.  O’Malley won nearly 415,000 votes against two non-name challengers. That amount is 110,000 less than the amount he got in 2006. This is especially shocking when you consider Democratic registration gains.  

The bottom line: O’Malley needs to mobilize his base in a year unfavorable to Democrats. If African Americans show up to the polls in respectable numbers in both Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, he wins.

Second, Bob Ehrlich’s challenge is both numbers and enthusiasm. Not only did one in four GOP primary voters vote for Brian Murphy this year, Ehrlich polled less than he did in both 2002 and 2006.  

Ehrlich needs to seal the deal with some GOP rank and file voters who do not like Governor O’Malley, but also regard Ehrlich - the incumbent GOP gubernatorial nominee running in an anti-incumbent year - with suspicion because of his past record of tax, spending, and fee increases.  To win, he needs virtually every GOP voter to show up and vote.

But GOP voters are only one sliver of a winning coalition for Ehrlich. He also needs to sweep unaffiliated voters and pick up a slice of disaffected Democrats. That entails both broadening the appeal of his message and tapping into voters’ passions. To do that, he will have to run as a credible agent of change and not the lesser of two evils.

Simply put, Ehrlich needs to ride the wave, while O’Malley needs to field a ground game that delivers.  Each challenge is more difficult than it sounds.

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