Primary lessons

September 13, 2002|By Richard E. Vatz

DAVID KING of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government argues that "voters who show up for primary elections are more ideologically extreme than their general election counterparts." In addition, he says, primary elections are often dominated by the preferences of party activists.

These facts account for some of the more salient "surprises" in Maryland's primary Tuesday, such as first-term Del. Verna L. Jones' more than 2-1 victory over incumbent Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV in the Democratic race for the 44th Legislative District.

The primary's atypical electorate may also have accounted for some of the reported primary ugliness, including alleged Election Day shouts of anti-Semitism by some of the supporters of Lisa A. Gladden as she defeated Barbara A. Hoffman, chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, in their 41st District state Senate Democratic race.

One result that was not a surprise to serious pundits was the trouncing victory of William Donald Schaefer over Secretary of State John T. Willis, a former adviser to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in the race to be the Democratic nominee for state comptroller.

The critical lesson for politicos in the Schaefer-Willis race is that negative campaign advertising does not bring automatic advantage to its user. The Willis ad, paid for by Marylanders for Glendening, falsely implied that Mr. Schaefer is a bigot because he has referred to women as "little girls" and has used the word "Afro" instead of "African" in African-American. The ad's calumny failed because falsely negative campaigning against popular candidates with stable support simply does not work; in fact, it often backfires, as appears to have been the case here.

Fair and legitimate criticism -- often misperceived as inappropriate "negative campaigning" -- is simply necessary to defeat incumbents in an election. Oz Bengur's disparaging of the concept of negative campaigning followed by insufficient criticism of a possibly vulnerable C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger may have accounted for Mr. Ruppersberger's 50 percent to 36 percent victory in the U.S. House race in District 2.

But incumbency itself is hard to overcome in most cases. Dave Fischer opposed Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, U.S. House incumbent, in the Republican District 1 race and ran ads playing to the Republicans' conservative base, criticizing Mr. Gilchrest for being too "liberal," among other things. Mr. Gilchrest won handily (60 percent to 36 percent), proving that even a strong campaign often cannot beat the power of incumbency, especially long-term incumbency.

The big enchilada for the primary was the gubernatorial race.

In 1998, with polls showing Mr. Glendening and Ellen Sauerbrey in a dead heat in September, he won his primary 70 percent to 13 percent over Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann (who had effectively quit her campaign months earlier). Ms. Sauerbrey won her primary over Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, 81 percent to 19 percent.

This year, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., won with 93 percent, and the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, while winning easily (80 percent to 20 percent), was shown surprising opposition strength by Robert Raymond Fustero, a retired grocery clerk who, with his recently homeless running mate, was outspent 2,300-1 by a Kennedy.

This result likely reflects the increased negatives garnered by Ms. Townsend, as evidenced by pre-election polls that show her virtually even with Mr. Ehrlich at this point.

A cautionary word about polls: It is not that they are dependably incorrect; it's that they are simply not dependably correct. For example, even though primary polls often have been simply wrong, throughout the 2002 campaign the discussion of the near-dead heat in the gubernatorial campaign has just assumed the correctness of the polling results and their margins of error.

One need not look far to find evidence of pre-election polls' imperfection: Mayor Martin O'Malley's resounding victory over Carl Stokes and Lawrence A. Bell III in 1999 when polls had them neck-and-neck before the primary election.

Some pollsters argue that the general election polls suffer no (or few) such problems. Not true. Just look at the 1998 gubernatorial race in Maryland, in which Mr. Glendening had been running just slightly ahead of Ms. Sauerbrey in pre-election polls up until the election. He won with 56 percent to her 44 percent.

Primary elections are attended by a smaller, more opinionated, more involved electorate. Many of the lessons for the general election must be tempered.

Let the final games begin.

Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University.

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