Reading the polls

June 28, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

POLLS. They constitute the Bible of modern politics. Yet it sometimes takes a mystic to interpret the conflicting numbers.

Last weekend, a Washington Post poll showed Gov. Parris N. Glendening leading Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by 12 percentage points. But a Mason-Dixon poll in April had the two in a statistical dead heat. A Peter Hart poll in May showed the governor with a six-point lead.

Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry's poll has Ms. Sauerbrey beating Mr. Glendening statewide. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's poll shows Ms. Sauerbrey clobbering Mr. Glendening in rural and suburban districts.

Skeptical view

Polls should always be viewed with skepticism. Questions can be slanted to produce desired results. The methodology may be flawed.

These surveys only represent voter snapshots at a given moment. Winning a June poll is meaningless. What counts is where voters end up on Election Day.

But polls can uncover trends and point to areas of weakness. Consider the Peter Hart poll.

It was conducted for the owners of Maryland's thoroughbred race tracks, who support Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann.

The Hart poll echoes other surveys: Mr. Glendening's support is fragile. For an incumbent running in a year when the economy is booming, his lead is slim.

The governor runs extremely well in three liberal subdivisions he won four years ago -- Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Ms. Sauerbrey wins big in newer, fast-growing conservative suburbs.

The good news for Mr. Glendening is that he has regained support in Baltimore County, where the two are running dead even. He lost Baltimore County, usually a Democratic stronghold, by 32,000 votes last time.

Still, Mr. Glendening remains largely unappreciated by voters: Two-thirds say they would consider someone else or vote to replace him.

The Hart poll shows that Mr. Glendening easily wins a multi-candidate Democratic primary. Ms. Rehrmann, the Harford County executive, stands no chance of pulling an upset as long as Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. remains in the race.

Knowing the candidates

Name recognition accounts for Mr. Glendening's large lead over Ms. Rehrmann (he is known by 99 percent of Democrats; she is known by 43 percent). Once respondents are told more about the records of the two candidates, Ms. Rehrmann pulls to within 4 points.

The Hart survey also indicates that slot machines at racetracks isn't a pivotal issue. Voters oppose casinos in Maryland (55 to 39 percent) but narrowly favor slots (49 to 44 percent).

And when people are informed that slot machines are operating at Delaware and West Virginia racetracks, and that slots proceeds in Maryland would be spent on education, support widens (54 to 39 percent). The switch is especially strong among African-American voters.

What voters like most about Ms. Rehrmann is her reputation as a fiscally responsible officeholder "who is careful with taxpayer money."

What they dislike about Mr. Glendening is that he spends "too much taxpayer money," especially on football stadiums.

How can Ms. Rehrmann overcome her 28-point deficit?

The Hart survey indicates she must 1) persuade Mr. Schoenke to drop out; 2) spend millions of dollars to gain broad name recognition; 3) exploit her record of careful stewardship of tax dollars; 4) educate voters on the specifics of her slots-for-education proposal.

That is a tall order. It becomes especially difficult while Mr. Glendening pours millions into his own campaign advertising.

The Hart poll has identified areas of opportunity that Ms. Rehrmann may be able to exploit. Now it becomes a matter of execution. Ms. Rehrmann might not have enough time, money or political skill to pull it off.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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