Term in Office Changed Perception of Schmoke

September 22, 1991|By HERBERT C. SMITH

Four years ago Clarence H. "Du" Burns confounded pollsters and pundits when, from 30 points behind Kurt Schmoke in the race for the Democratic mayoral nomination, Mr. Burns closed to a virtual photo finish.

The Burns surge came late -- with but two weeks left in the campaign. The crystallizing event was a televised debate with Schmoke. There, Mr. Burns, with a pit bull tenacity, administered a sarcastic tongue-lashing of the challenger, who seemed unable or unwilling to respond in kind. Word of mouth carried the message across the precincts. Mr. Burns then proceeded to give Schmoke the longest election night of his political career. Not until the results came in from West Baltimore's Fifteenth Ward, a Schmoke firewall of sorts, was his narrow 51 percent to 47 percent victory margin assured.

This time, there was no September surprise. The only media public opinion survey conducted, by WBAL-TV in late August, reported a 25 point Schmoke margin, with the mayor tallying 56 )) percent to Mr. Burns' 31 percent and William Swisher's 6 percent. Six percent of the respondents said they were totally undecided.

Mr. Burns and his advocates discounted the trial-heat findings with the mantra of the underdog, "the only poll that counts is on election day." But when the Baltimore City Board of Elections Supervisors completed the ballot count on primary night, the results were virtually what the poll had predicted. Mr. Schmoke amassed a 58 majority against Mr. Burns' 30 percent and Mr. Swisher's 10 percent.

Some analysts have suggested that the absence of a televised Schmoke-Burns confrontation during this campaign helped produce the landslide outcome. However, the reasons Mr. Burns could not repeat a final surging stretch run more likely reside in the different public perceptions of Kurt Schmoke from 1987 to the present.

According to WBAL-TV surveys, four years ago Mr. Schmoke's support rested largely on his personality and educational resume. When we asked potential Schmoke voters what was "the most important reason" they supported him, 38 percent opted for such attributes as youthfulness, honesty or charisma, all qualities based on Mr. Schmoke's persona. In addition, 30 percent focused on Mr. Schmoke's Yale and Harvard Law degrees as well as his Rhodes Scholarship.

In contrast, a whopping 62 percent of 1987 Burns supporters cited his extensive political experience or tenure as mayor as the primary basis of their allegiance. Only 14 percent focused on Mr. Burns' personal qualities.

The 1987 campaign context of perceptions then was of the personally well-regarded challenger, Mr. Schmoke, vs. the old political pro, Mr. Burns. In the debate, Mr. Schmoke's Ivy League background mattered little against Mr. Burns' street-fighter rhetoric. Mr. Burns acted like the determined and aggressive incumbent, reinforcing and obviously enhancing his public image. The favorable personality-based perceptions of Mr. Schmoke faded in importance as a basis of voters' choice -- not enough for Mr. Schmoke to lose, but enough to make the primary outcome close.

This September, the candidates' roles and, to a considerable degree, public perceptions were reversed.

Four years of incumbency have melded Mr. Schmoke with the mayoral role, the identification of individual with office that makes incumbents so difficult to dislodge at any level in the American political process.

Mr. Schmoke's 1991 support profile reflects the change. When his supporters were asked the most important reason for their choice, a plurality of 40 percent said it was Mr. Schmoke's performance as mayor. Although most felt that he had done a good job, a significant number were more conditional in their approval, reporting that "Schmoke really needs more time to prove himself."

Other responses had an edge of disappointment but explained it in terms of the decline in federal urban aid or the lack of city council support that compromised the powers and effectiveness the mayor. One registered Democrat in this group observed, "Schmoke has done as well as could be expected under the circumstances. He hasn't had a great deal of cooperation from the rest of city government."

Mr. Schmoke's personal attributes remained a significant basis of appeal, but only 15 percent felt they were the most important. And the proportion of Mr. Schmoke's supporters citing his educational attainments as the most important reason for their support declined from 30 percent in 1987 to 12 percent this year.

Twelve percent mentioned the mayor's personal involvement in public education or his commitment to literacy in "The City That Reads" effort as the most important factor in determining their support.

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