Thursday, October 14, 2010

The WaPo Debate: Ehrlich Brings His A-Game

If Monday’s debate between Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley was reminiscent of the legendary fight between Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis, Thursday’s debate at the Washington Post was more Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier – two experienced, evenly-matched contenders pounding the crap out of each other.

Performance-wise, it was a pretty even matchup with a slight edge to Ehrlich, who also benefited from the expectations game coming out of Monday. There was no game-changing moment here, which benefits incumbent O’Malley.

After the WJZ debacle, Ehrlich needed to bring his “A game” to the Washington Post – and he did. Debates can be won with a single clever one-liner, and Ehrlich had several effective zingers throughout the debate.  What’s more, he turned his authenticity back into an asset. Compared to Monday, it was a night and day performance.

One significant criticism of Ehrlich’s performance: He brought up the 2006 Baltimore City schools controversy again – something which few people other than political junkies like me remember. Clearly it is something that bothers him. But, he needs to let it go. Rehashing 2006 is not going to win him any votes. And, it wastes time that could be spent discussing jobs and the economy – the only relevant issues this year.

O’Malley got in a few effective jabs on the issue of taxes. Clearly the Democrats want to equalize Ehrlich and O’Malley on tax/spending issues – something which ultimately benefits O’Malley. I thought O’Malley praising Ehrlich for enacting the “flush tax” was a clever way of reminding voters of who had passed it.

Both candidates accomplished what they needed to accomplish going into the debate.

Ehrlich’s performance will rally his supporters, many of whom have been dispirited by recent unfavorable polls as well as negative news coverage following the Monday debate. The last thing Ehrlich needs is for his supporters to conclude the race is over and not show up at the polls. They need to see a confident and energized candidate.  Monday, they didn’t – but Thursday, they did.

O’Malley’s performance was typically polished and on par with past TV appearances. His objective going into the debate was not to commit any gaffes which Ehrlich could exploit. The biggest criticism one can make of O’Malley is that he perhaps seemed a bit too talking point reliant – something Ehrlich referenced effectively at different points during the debate.

As I have argued in prior blog postings, these debates matter more to Ehrlich than O’Malley, as it is up to Ehrlich to convince voters why they need to fire O’Malley and rehire him. During his performance, I think he hit both arguments intermittently. While I am not sure he sold these arguments, he definitely delivered the game sustaining performance he needed.


  1. Richard, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what I considered to be two of the more interesting exchanges of the debate dealing with race and immigration.

    You touched on the Baltimore schools aspect, but I thought it was interesting that the questioner directly brought up the issue of race.

    I agree that the economy and jobs are THE issues in this campaign, but I also think people watching debates make judgments about candidates based on how they answer questions about touchy subjects.

    People tend to tune out when they hear the usual economic talking points, but the immigration and race discussions were very real and relatively unrehearsed, in my opinion, and I have a hunch they were revealing to many viewers.

    Just wondering who you thought got the better of those exchanges. Thanks.

  2. I agree with this post,Ehrlich was much better in this debate, he rose to O'Malley's level. Though O'Malley's arguments will play better in the DC markets which will most view this debate.

    That said, the televised debates are over. The only remaining opportuinities rest on WOLB, whose audience will vote 90 percent with O'Malley no matter what happens and WTOP whose audience Ehrlich will not sway.

    In the macro picture, Ehrlich had two opportunities to change the game and he simply hasn't appeared to offer the specifics needed to make his case. Essentially two weeks remain, two weeks where Ehrlich will be pounded relentlessly in both tv markets and on radio (where scarcely an Ehrlich ad can be heard anymore).

    The Democratic Party which has more resources, will start to grind its field, phone and get out the vote. Mikulski will utilize her resources to turn out her vote, which is O'Malley's vote.

    Richard, with so little time and no debates less what can Ehrlich do to change this race? Does he have the financial resources to stage a late rally with new and effective ads? Mail?

    I suspect that this race is done, the only question is not if O'Malley wins, but by how much he prevails.

  3. I thought those were interesting points in the debate as well. Ehrlich did a crisp job playing to his base, repeating a good one liner regarding new americans is like saying some one who breaks into his house is a new family member?

    O'Malley, though was clear in articulating the Democratic position and lets make no mistake, his position will play very well in PG and Mont Co.

    On race, Ehrlich dodged a bullet. O'Malley should have whacked ehrlich for his IRS inquiry into the NAACP, his multiculturalism is bunk, his promise to cut funding to two predominately African American school districts and his position on move to opportuinity. O'Malley did dent Ehrlich by discussing the ridiculous campaign tactic of shipping in homeless AA men to work polls, handing out fake literature. Is Ehrlich a racist, no. Do his policy positions demonstrate racial insensitivity, yes. Maybe the Post should ask Joe Steffan's replacement on the campaign about Ehrlich's record on race, Julious Henson.

  4. Anon @ 13:23, as an Ehrlich supporter, I can only hope that many O'Malley supporters share your opinion that an O'Malley victory is a fait accompli.

    You've got a total of 2 polls showing O'Malley with a comfortable lead. Only one poll in months has shown O'Malley's support over 50%. You're fighting a national GOP and anti-incumbent tide that should not be underestimated. And there are still more than 2 weeks left before election day.

    But, please, I encourage as many O'Malley voters as possible to sit this one out!

  5. 13:42,

    You are looking at the race through partisan glasses. You are right, Ehrlich's only hope is that democratic voters stay home and the cash depleted GOP turns its voters out. That however is not a campaign strategy, it is a prayer you need to say in Church the Sunday before the election.

    However, looking at the facts as they are today:

    O'Malley has a 2-1 voter registration advantage, with a Democratic Party that has a demonstrated track record of turning its voters out in general elections. His approval ratings are over 50 percent in EVERY poll. The past two Rasmussan polls have him at or around 50 percent, meaning Ehrlich needs every undecided vote to win. A tough task when you are underfunded and outgunned on the airwaves.

    O'Malley clearly has raised more money and has purchased more airtime in DC suburubs, Baltimore market and now throughout the state bc Bob has pulled all his resources to purchase in DC to stem the bleeding two months of well produced ads have caused his campaign.

    There are no more debates and Ehrlich missed his chance to articulate a clear reason to vote for him. As Richard says, Ehrlich needed big wins, he in no way recieved them. He has instead spent time defending and explaining, arguing campaign themes that resulted in a big loss 4 years ago. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

    O'Malley has Clinton coming in town to rile the base, has money for election day and has Mikulski campaign flushing identified supporters. This race wont be over until Tuesday, and if you watch carefully over the next two weeks, I suspect you will see the O'Malley camp continuing to work hard in its base and on the airwaves.

    I know voter supression is your hope, and Julious Henson's deliverable, but sound campaign execution and tactics usually crush those hopes in this state. Believe this, turnout will be proportionate to 2006. Bob's challange, change 51,000 minds. Time is ticking.

  6. 14:12,

    In what way did I express an intent to advance a campaign strategy? I simply stated the facts as I see them. Like it or not, turnout is a major concern for O'Malley in this climate and without Obama on the ticket. Why else would Obama and Clinton be coming to town?

    Voter suppression is not my hope. That implies an active attempt to stop people from voting. Voter apathy (among Democrats) is my hope, and probably O'Malley's greatest fear.

    I don't have to tell you the voter registration numbers by party. Ehrlich can win almost all Republicans and a solid majority of Independents - as I suspect he will - and still lose badly if enough Dems come out.

    And I don't dispute most of the facts you mentioned - clearly O'Malley is the favorite. I just don't think it's over yet.

    If the next poll reinforces the previous two, I'll change my tune.

  7. Fair response, I agree it is not over. Ehrlich, though needs to engage in a different strategy, he needs a huge infusion of cash, and he needs a forum to change the votes of an increasingly hardening electorate to be competitive.

    When a campaign is counting on low turnout from an opponent's supporters as their only shot to win, it is a sure sign of a sinking ship. There is no polling data to support the often stated hope that Dems will stay home, GOP will turn out. Infact, looking at the tv ratings of the past debate, interest is steady with 4 years ago.

    LBJ once said the secret to campaigning is. . .do everyting. Obama and Clinton come to town to gin up the base, turn out the vote, not because they sense trouble. When you have stars, use em. Ehrlich used Christie, Giuliani and Romney. WHo knows, maybe he will use Steele's star power down the stretch?

    Voter turnout in the primary was low in BOTH parties. Lets wait on the next poll, I suspect Ehrlich will narrow the gap but won't be within 5.

  8. 12:50: I agree...the exchanges on race and immigration were interesting. I think O'Malley's response on immigration was his weakest answer of the debate. This time, Ehrlich was focused and on-point enough to challenge O'Malley when he kept repeating that "New Americans" phrase. I think Ehrlich won that particular exchange easily, particularly because of his "if someone breaks into my house, do they become a new member of my family" quip.

    I think the exchange on race was a wash. It was two white politicians trying to prove their cred with black voters, while undercutting the other guy's. Ehrlich talked about the Baltimore schools issue, and O'Malley brought up the homeless poll workers issue. Both these events occurred in 2006. I'm not sure either candidate was especially effective there.

  9. Anon @10/14 @ 13:23:

    Hard question to ask without knowing how much money they have left.

    If I were them, and assuming they have not much money left, I'd focus on direct mailing pieces designed to accomplish two goals: 1) mobilize supporters in areas Ehrlich needs to carry by supermajorities (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Frederick, Carroll, Howard counties); and 2) undercut O'Malley's support in the black community.

    Both are difficult challenges. But, achieving these goals constitutes Ehrlich's best shot at victory.

  10. Anon @ 10/14 @ 15:40:

    It's worth noting that, with respect to GOP primary turnout, more Republicans voted in the gubernatorial primary than did in 2002 or 2006. But, Ehrlich got less votes in 2010 than he did in either of those previous elections. All the extra GOP votes went to Brian Murphy.

  11. 15:40,

    I would argue that Ehrlich's campaign -- and that of any Republican running statewide in Maryland -- is to some extent ALWAYS counting on low turnout from their opponent's supporters in order to win. The math in Maryland is pretty simple in that respect.

    But I do agree that if that is your sole hope, you're in trouble.

  12. New Americans or Illegal Immigrants, terms designed to appeal to the base of each of these candidates. Ehrlich's respons works well amongst his base, it polarizes Dems. O'Malley's response plays well with his base, polarizes rt wing Republicans.

    Remember, however this is the first debate in 12 years to take place in the DC suburbs. Ehrlich accepting this debate demonstrates his internal polls and his poor Monday debate performance forced his hand. Fact is, while Ehrlich was much improved, O'Malley was given a free shot to mobilize voters in his most important districts. His stand on gay marriage, immigration, school funding will trigger voters Ehrlich hopes stay home.

    Got to believe, however that this issue is not polling to high amongst undecided voters, as we are not a border state. Not saying its not important, just not sure this swings undecideds.

    Reality, by Monday these debates will slip the minds of most. On another note, driving through Bmore city today, signs are cropping up on major thorough fairs encouraging voters to support Obama, vote early. This is a sign that the Democratic party is in mobilizing mode, their field campaign is at work. Lots of methods work in getting voters to the polls, ie. phone banks, signs, canvassing, flushing, mail, tv, churches, sign waves, celbrity visits, few methods exist to keep voters away..

  13. People have heard O'Malley and Ehrlich so much it doesn't matter what they said only the perception of each candidate. Bob Ehrlich loses and loses big (except with his small base). Bob comes across (because he is)as a rude, crass out of control whiny hothead. Oct 14 and Ehrlich is working to secure votes by throwing anti- immigration red meat to his base? I see Ehrlich taking the bait from O'Malley's "New American" rhetoric. It is a trap and Ehrlich feel for it hook, line and sinker. Ehrlich scores so HSM votes, but loses big time among moderates and Independents.

  14. Good stuff Richard.

    I have a comment for Anon 6:55. Your leanings are abundantly clear (favor O'Malley). Every poll has Ehrlich winning Independents (or, in Maryland, Unaffiliated voters) by 2-1 margin. Yes, these are the polls that have Mr. O'Malley leading by 11 and 8 points, respectively (WaPo, Rasmussen). Secondly, immigration is a divisive black/white issue. At this point in the court of public opinion, either you're calling them 'illegals' or 'new Americans'; you either favor granting them a path to citizenship, or you don't. So Ehrlich had a choice: 1. pander to left Dems on this (who he won't win anyway) by reversing past position on this (not supporting law breaking behavior) or 2. be truthful about how he feels (oppose those who are in this country illegally and who drain the State and the federal gov't of money and jobs). Also, Mr. Ehrlich (I'm sure Richard can attest) is not anti-immigration. He's against law breaking behavior. He reiterated this in the first debate - he comes from immigrants, we all come from immigrants. Immigration is what made this country great.

    Lastly, I don't know how others feel, but what you consider rude I see as real; what you consider crass, I see as truthful; and what you consider out-of-control whiny hothead, I see as passionate. I think both men are passionate about this, they clearly don't like each other and they are both competitive men who want to win. I think that's an admirable quality.

    So in my view you're just another O'Malley cronie (sp?) trying to inject confusion and divisiveness into an important issue.

  15. Pandering to Help Save Maryland will not save Ehrlich. Immigration is not a big issue in a race for Maryland Governor. "Multi-Culturism is Bunk" can effectively be used to paint Ehrlich as anti-immigrant. Bob has a bad temper and a big mouth. It always coems back to haunt him.

  16. TJ,

    Interesting comments which describe well the dilemna faced by all candidates who must shore up their base without alienating undecideds.

    While you and I support different candidates, I beleieve that both men at times took courageous positions. Both were frank about their belief on immigration and in good fatih represent the difficulty of the issue.

    Both men also get caught in the complexities that running government presents. Ehrlich has taken a calculated political/policy driven stance to cut the sales tax but clearly has not figured out how he will make up the lost revenue. The math does not support his assertion that the cut itself will spur enough purchsing to make up for the lost revenue. To get that 600 million back, 12 billion of consumer purchasing would need to take place. He may have a plan, but the cuts he will make are not politically feasible to announce.

    O'Malley, likewise gets dinged for his position on the purple line without a easily understood way of paying for the project. The State can not afford it and will need federal grants. However to build it, one has to show some vision.

    Both men are competitive; both are the best their parties have to offer; both represent their demanding constituiencies in a way that will certainly alienate many.

    Debates, like signs, literature, phonebanking and comnercials are a way for candidates to convey their messages to their base and undecided voters. Both men did that, with varying opinions of effectiveness.

    Voters have a clear choice in this election, as they did in the last. The winner of this race will be the one, in the closing weeks that bests mobilizes their base and reaches undecided voters.

    O'Malley has some clear advantages based on his fundraising advantage, voter registration and seasoned campaign team. Ehrlich is running in a very good climate for challengers and if he loses this race, it appears he will break the national trend that is affecting Congress.

    17 days, all this gets sorted out.

  17. Ehrlich's insistence on making the MD Republican Party Bobcentric is now biting him in the mASSoni.

    Wargotz' weak candidacy, no AG race, no real Comptroller race and countless other examples of the weakness of the GOP in Maryland will allow people like Mikulski to use their vast resources to drive out the Democratic vote.

  18. Anon,
    Excellent point. There is no down ticket excitement to turn out voters.Ehrlich all the air out of the room and now it is just Ehrlich sucking.

  19. Anon @ 10/15 @ 13:33

    "Ehrlich's insistence on making the MD Republican Party Bobcentric is now biting him in the mASSoni."

    Yeah...I LOL on that one. Sorry for the lack of decorum on my part, but thanks!!!