Independents may decide close election

Candidates for governor, Congress try to swing unpredictable voters

Election 2002

October 11, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Political wisdom says that to win the Maryland gubernatorial race, candidates must mobilize a solid foundation of faithful party voters.

But this year, it may be a growing number of independent voters in swing counties such as Howard who will determine the outcome of the close gubernatorial contest between Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., as well as two hotly contested congressional races.

Independents make both major parties nervous because their votes are difficult to predict. And then there's the question of whether they will vote.

"In '98, over and over again, independents told me they happened to be furious with the Republican Party," said Columbia Democrat Del. Elizabeth Bobo, recalling Gov. Parris N. Glendening's last victory. "How that's all going to play this time, I don't know."

About 13 percent of Maryland's 2.7 million voters are not registered in either major party, and in Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, the proportion of independent voters is higher. In Howard, about one in six registered voters is an independent.

In Montgomery, widely viewed as pivotal in the gubernatorial race and scene of the close 8th Congressional District race, nearly one in five registered voters is independent.

"They're the key to a winning formula in a tight race," said Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Townsend campaign.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's spokesman, agreed, but predicted a Republican tilt Nov. 5 among the more than 360,000 Maryland independents.

He said the Ehrlich campaign has "some marketing plans unique to the nonaffiliated" voter, though he wouldn't elaborate.

Experts say independents tend to vote Republican in presidential elections.

Independents offer candidates a particularly difficult challenge because most of them are turned off by traditional party politics.

"I decided I didn't want to commit myself to Republicans or Democrats. I consider them the evil party and the dumb party," said Anthony James Roberts, 29, from east Columbia. Despite such misgivings, Roberts said he would vote for Ehrlich.

Paul R. Rozgonyi, 34, of Elkridge said, "I don't care for this party setup. I think too many of these people are worried about their party instead of what needs to be done."

Janet Oken, a 30-year independent from Columbia, said, "I vote for a person rather than a political party." That's why this summer, she tried to change her registration to Democrat to enable her to vote for Mary Kay Sigaty, a friend running for Howard County Council and who lost by 36 votes in a tough Democratic primary. Oken's attempt to change her voter registration failed because of an election board error. But even if had been successful, Oken said the change "wouldn't lead me to believe I am a Democrat. It's just the principle of it."

Independents tend to reflect Republicans more than Democrats in socioeconomic variables, said Herbert C. Smith, a political consultant and a professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"Yet at the same time, they're less political, less politically informed and less likely to participate," Smith said. Pollster Carol Arscott said surveys have shown independent voters to be "socially liberal and fiscally conservative, sometimes extremely so."

But many people who register to vote don't intend to be voters, she said.

That may be partly due to the 1995 motor-voter bill, which gives voter registration forms to everyone seeking a driver's license. In 1990, Maryland had 167,920 independent voters. By 1996, that number had jumped to 289,271.

"That's why voter registration increased, but voter turnout has gone down," said Tom Surock, director of the motor-voter program at the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

The number of independents in counties such as Howard gives underdogs hope in districts where their party is outnumbered. The county voters favored Democrats in 1998 and 2000 elections, but Ehrlich is ahead there by a margin of 52 percent to 35 percent, according to a recent Sun poll.

Independents "are swing voters. They can tip the balance," said Democrat Neil F. Quinter, a candidate for the House of Delegates in Howard's District 13, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 11,000, but also where 11,000 voters are registered independents.

"They only give [Republicans] hope for a tie," Quinter said.

Tony McGuffin, a Democrat running for a delegate's seat in Republican-dominated western Howard, sees the nearly 8,000 independents in District 9A as important. "If they like me, they'll vote for me," he said.

Louis M. Pope, first vice chairman of the state GOP and Howard County party leader, noted that independents were allowed to vote in the Republican presidential primary in 2000, and 3,800 did in Howard County.

"We got 450 who changed registrations to Republican," he said. "Most independents are friends to Republicans."

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