A sobering message for Maryland Democrats

November 10, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

MARYLAND Democrats had better hold their applause. Lurking behind Bill Clinton's landslide in the Free State last week were some disturbing numbers.

Yes, Mr. Clinton took Maryland by 272,000 votes. But he lost 15 of 24 subdivisions. Combine Bob Dole's totals with Ross Perot's and after absentee ballots are counted it's likely Mr. Clinton will have won only three subdivisions -- Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County.

Sound familiar? It looks like a carbon copy of 1992 -- and similar in many respects to 1994.

In the last presidential election, Bill Clinton also won Maryland, by 281,000 votes -- and lost 21 counties to the combined votes of George Bush and Ross Perot. If it hadn't been for the Big 3 Democratic subdivisions, this state would have been solidly Republican in 1992, 1994 and 1996.

Four years ago, the Big 3 gave Mr. Clinton a lead of 330,000 votes; he won by 281,000. This year, the Big 3 ran up a 307,000-vote Clinton lead; he won by 272,000 votes.

His winning totals: in Baltimore, 80 percent; Prince George's, 74 percent, and Montgomery, 60 percent. Elsewhere, he lost big -- 32 percent in Carroll, 38 percent in Harford and Frederick.

The same thing happened to Gov. Parris Glendening two years ago. He lost 21 of 24 subdivisions. His winning margin of 6,000 came from the 181,000-vote lead he ran up in the populous Big 3 Democratic subdivisions.

What does this tell us for the 1998 statewide elections?

Republican Ellen Sauerbrey, not Democrat Glendening, holds the upper hand at this early stage.

There are, though, positive signs for the governor. Mr. Clinton's winning percentage in Maryland was the highest for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. It was the best showing by a Democrat in a three-way race since Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

The Democrat won Dorchester and Worcester counties on the Lower Shore -- a rare happening. Democrats are again heavily out-registering Republicans. And the concentration of Democratic strongholds in a few densely populated subdivisions is not new -- it has been occurring throughout this century.

Yet the governor's supporters have to be concerned by continuing signs of his unpopularity. Exit polling last week by Voter News Service showed that only 34 percent of respondents gave him a favorable job rating.

Compounding his problem is erosion of support in the Big 3 Democratic subdivisions, especially in pivotal Montgomery County. He has not been forgiven for building costly football stadiums in Baltimore and Landover or for the pension scandal in Prince George's County tied to his years as county executive.

Meanwhile, the governor's relations with P.G.'s county executive and Baltimore's mayor are frayed.

Sunshine for Sauerbrey

For Ms. Sauerbrey, the political sun is shining brightly. She should fare even better than Mr. Dole and Mr. Perot in those 21 Maryland counties she won two years ago. She surely will put more effort into narrowing the Democratic majority in Baltimore. And she surely will court vote-rich Montgomery, where Republicans have made inroads in recent local elections. She also should benefit from a strong team of Republican congressmen who will be running on the GOP ticket with her in 1998.

Moreover, voter distrust of government and taxes continues. In Prince George's County, angry voters last week imposed draconian restrictions on higher taxes and fees. Similar referenda could show up on other local ballots in 1998, with Ms. Sauerbrey crusading to rein in government taxing powers.

If Mr. Glendening faces a tough challenge in his own Democratic primary, the Republicans' job would be even easier. Should a challenger upset the incumbent, however -- it has never been done before -- Republicans' hopes might be dashed, especially if that challenger is a centrist. After all, Democrats still hold a 2-1 voter-registration edge.

But finding the right challenger, who is willing to risk his political career taking on an incumbent, won't be easy. That's in Mr. Glendening's favor. He's also counting on duplicating Mr. Clinton's feat of focusing voter attention on his record in office, not his blemishes.

So far, the governor hasn't figured out how to do that in Maryland. Until he does, Parris Glendening faces an uphill struggle to hold onto his office.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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