Geography affects voters' concerns

Split: Numbers weigh heavily for the state's Democrats, but many voters are making Republican candidates and priorities their own.

The Maryland Poll

January 13, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Copyright (c);2002, The Baltimore Sun

By almost any measure, Maryland's voters remain some of the most liberal in the nation: They support banning the sale of handguns, raising taxes for public schools and spending state dollars to ensure health care for all.

But the latest Maryland Poll found signs that the state's liberal beliefs might be waning.

Maryland voters are almost equally split whether Democrats or Republicans would be better able to handle the state's problems - a startling finding in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1.

Signs of a shift to the political right, perhaps influenced by the tremendous wartime popularity of the Republican president, emerge as Marylanders' views appear ever more geographically fragmented.

Outside the city, the Baltimore metropolitan area is growing more conservative, while Washington's suburbs cling to staunchly liberal beliefs - a notable distinction as the state's population and political power move toward Washington.

Voters in Greater Baltimore differ from those in Greater Washington on their top legislative issue: crime vs. education.

Baltimore-area voters are also less concerned by traffic, less in favor of banning handguns, less for delaying the state income tax cut and less approving of Gov. Parris N. Glendening than their counterparts in the Washington area.

"If you look at Baltimore's suburbs, you can see a clear Republican growth," says Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and close observer of the state's politics.

The Maryland Poll, a statewide survey conducted for The Sun by Potomac Inc. and released last week, reaffirmed the state's liberal leanings - or its "progressive" nature, as many Democratic leaders prefer to put it.

Half of the registered voters surveyed back a ban on the sale of all handguns - 15 to 20 percentage points higher than in the nation overall - and 49 percent say they're willing to delay a state income tax cut scheduled to take effect this year. A clear majority are willing to protect the environment at the expense of jobs.

Even many of Maryland's Republicans have less-than-conservative viewpoints on many social issues considered to be bedrock GOP beliefs.

"I would support banning handguns, and I'm not a Greenpeace supporter, but I would rather protect the environment than grow more jobs," says Thomas Casey, 41, a Republican who lives in Severna Park and works in the group insurance business.

Many Maryland Republicans aren't in the party's conservative faction. "I definitely feel Republican," Casey says, "but to my parents who are extremely conservative, I'm a bomb-throwing liberal."

Casey's sentiments about feeling part of the GOP aren't shared by all moderate-leaning Maryland Republicans. These days, some are looking at state and national candidates and wondering whether there's a place for them.

"Am I really a Republican? It makes me doubt that sometimes," says 31-year-old Jennifer Simmons, a public school teacher who lives in Silver Spring. "When I look at the candidates, it's hard to find someone in Maryland who fits what I believe."

For the Maryland Poll, 800 registered voters were interviewed by phone between Jan. 2 and Jan. 4, a random sample balanced statewide by geography, gender, age, ethnicity and political affiliation. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points - or higher for smaller samples within the overall poll.

Amid Maryland's strong progressive nature, the poll found growing evidence of conservative leanings - views that might be fostered by the nation's current economic woes.

A year ago, the Maryland Poll found that 58 percent of voters supported spending state money for the health care of those without private insurance. In this month's poll, only 51 percent supported such a policy. And the percentage of people who would prefer to protect the environment at the expense of creating new jobs also dropped - from 68 percent in 2001 to 60 percent in 2002.

"In a time of recession, you would expect those types of declines because people are more conscious of money and jobs," says Steven R. Raabe, executive vice president of Potomac Inc. "We know we're in a recession, but when you see a decline of only seven or eight points, it shows that the recession is not that severe in Maryland."

Nevertheless, the willingness of so many Maryland voters to consider the GOP when it comes to solving the state's problems suggests a growth of conservatism.

In the poll, 41 percent said Democrats would be best suited for that task, while 38 percent - including almost one in five Democrats - chose Republicans.

Janet Garrett calls herself just such a free-thinking Democratic voter. The 62-year-old resident of Sparks in Baltimore County, who co-owns a cleaning service company with her husband, says she likes President Bush and thinks "he's done a great job."

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