Why the Duller Race May Be the More Significant

October 02, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- It is a truth universally acknowledged in today's cynical world that when a pollster calls, the sensible and proper response is to lie. So it might not be wise to make too much of recent public-opinion soundings about Maryland's impending elections.

The polls, based on interviews with a few hundred people, suggest that the contest for governor, between Ellen Sauerbrey and Parris Glendening, is very close. They indicate as well that Paul Sarbanes appears likely to defeat William Brock and keep his seat in the U.S. Senate.

These conclusions please some people and disappoint others, but right now they're only speculative. Believing in polls taken several weeks before an election is a little like believing in an afterlife; until the facts are in, it requires a certain leap of faith. The safest if not the boldest posture is an agnostic one.

Pollsters like to say that their work is like a snapshot. It freezes time, catches public opinion as it was at a certain moment. If future election results reflect a very different kind of public opinion, so what? It doesn't mean the poll was wrong. It just shows that people changed their minds.

In any event, political polls are naturally more credible when they're consistent with what people consider to be common sense. The last round of Maryland polls generally meet that test. The snapshot they purport to give us may not be accurate, but it could be.

Our state's political history is profoundly Democratic. In the last 50 years, it has elected only two Republican governors and four Republican senators; in the last 30 years, one Republican governor and two Republican senators. While Democrats, with their great edge in voter registration, have many times been able to win statewide general elections on little more than inertia, Republicans have needed special circumstances.

In five of the six elections since World War II in which they have won statewide office, Maryland Republicans have had the benefit of at least two of the following: 1) an unusually weak or unpopular opponent; 2) unusual statewide recognition and personal popularity of the Republican candidate; 3) abnormal Democratic disunity.

Two-term Republican Gov. Theodore McKeldin (first elected 1950) had the benefit of all three circumstances in both of his elections; Gov. Spiro Agnew (1966) had Nos. 1 and 3. Three-term Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (1968), in his first and most

difficult election, had Nos. 1 and 2.

One-term Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr. (1970) and his two-term father (1952) benefited from Nos. 1 and 3. Two-term Sen. John Marshall Butler (1950) was a special case, using McCarthyite hysteria and unethical campaign practices to oust a conservative Democrat whose attention had been fixed on Washington and who didn't take the challenge seriously until too late.

This year Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, as well-positioned as any candidate nominated by her party in years. She has the advantage of great Democratic disunity exacerbated by the recent primary, plus the personal recognition she has won statewide for her advocacy of lower taxes and a less cumbersome state government.

Her opponent, Mr. Glendening, is neither weak nor personally unpopular, but he has other handicaps. His please-'em-all campaign lacks intellectual focus, and he is viewed suspiciously in much of the state because of his identification with the Washington suburbs.

Mr. Brock's situation is different. By the old rules, he hasn't a chance to defeat Mr. Sarbanes, a four-term incumbent. But he does appear to have a chance, even a fairly good chance, and that's an indication of the way the Maryland political landscape is changing. It's also why the rather humdrum Senate race may be even more significant in the long run than the ideologically more dramatic gubernatorial campaign.

If Mr. Brock, the bland Tennessean, is elected to the Senate, it won't be because of his personal popularity or Mr. Sarbanes' lack of it. It will be simply because he's not a Democrat, and because his opponent is. Republicans have won elections in the past for that reason in places like Utah and (more recently) Mississippi, but they've never been able to do so in Maryland.

This year, more than in any other year in decades, a Democrat is a dangerous thing for a major political candidate to be -- even in Democratic Maryland. This could be a passing phase, or it could be the beginning of a major partisan realignment.

Experience and history argue that the Democrats' current woes are Clinton-based and just a brief downward dip on the majority party's popularity graph. But instinct and recent voter registration trends tentatively suggest that something much more lasting could be under way.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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