Md. Big Three pool of votes has shrunk

October 20, 2002|By Thomas F. Schaller | Thomas F. Schaller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The conventional political wisdom in Maryland is that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend can win the governor's race if she gets strong enough returns in the "Big Three" Democratic jurisdictions: Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County.

The Big Three formula worked for her and Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1994; they lost Maryland's other 21 counties, but still won the election.

But here is a fact that may surprise the conventionally wise: Although Montgomery County grew, between 1990 and 2000 the Big Three shrunk from 46.5 percent to 43.9 percent of the state's population. Obviously, this is because Baltimore lost many residents. But even Prince George's County declined, if slightly, from 15.2 to 15.1 percent of the statewide population in that time.

Meanwhile, the other growth suburbs - Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford and Howard counties - increased their share of the state's population by almost 1.7 percent during the past 10 years. Howard County alone grew by 32 percent, the fastest rate of growth among the seven largest counties in Maryland. And Frederick is the fastest-growing city in the state.

The point is that when people leave Baltimore, they are more likely to relocate in Ellicott City or Owings Mills or Pasadena than in Gaithersburg or Takoma Park. Coupled with the losses in the Big Three, that's a net population swing of 4.3 percent from Democratic strongholds to the other more Republican-favorable growth suburbs. In a close election like the one everyone expects between Townsend and Republican candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., this shift could decide the outcome.

Indeed, though many are focusing on how Rep. Ehrlich closed the gap with Townsend in the polls during the summer, few are focusing on where he closed it. Data compiled by Carol Arscott of Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc. shows Ehrlich's biggest gains in the past six months have come in the Baltimore suburbs. And remember, the Big Three formula worked for Glendening-Townsend eight years ago - but just barely.

In the past few weeks, Townsend masterfully countered Ehrlich's summer surge. Running television commercials in the Washington suburbs helped to break her fall in the polls. The pendulum now seems to have swung back her way. But the fact is that the population changes of the past decade favor the Republicans, and especially an upstate Republican like Ehrlich.

The governor's race is not the only campaign that will be affected by population shifts and the pivotal role of Baltimore's suburbs. State and local contests are too numerous to mention, but watch the 2nd Congressional District battle between Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, and Republican former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

Bentley should do well in the eastern portions of Baltimore County, and most of Harford County - areas where Ehrlich, who represents the 2nd District, is popular. Ruppersberger, a business-friendly Democrat, should do well in the western Baltimore County portions of the newly configured district, and also in some Baltimore City precincts. Victory may depend on who runs the most vigorous campaign among the Anne Arundel County voters who are less familiar with both candidates.

In her campaign for governor Townsend must push her margins as high as possible in the Big Three jurisdictions, while Ehrlich will try to keep the numbers there close.

Democratic votes from Montgomery County will give Townsend a big lead on election night. Though votes from Prince George's County will bolster that lead, any help Townsend receives there may be offset by the damage two of the county's political sons have inflicted on her campaign: Glendening, a former Prince George's county executive, leaves office with low popularity ratings, a final year clouded by personal issues, and a big budget deficit. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller also is a Prince George's County Democrat. Add his judge-tampering shenanigans during the redistricting process to the mix and Ehrlich finds himself blessed with an arrogance-and-corruption theme that's working in a state where his issue positions and congressional voting record arouse little enthusiasm.

The 21st century may someday be remembered as a watershed moment in Maryland politics. The Big Three formula that worked so well for Democrats in the latter part of the 20th century is necessary for a Townsend win but may not be sufficient. She still doesn't need to carry a single county outside of the Big Three to win, but she will need to do well enough in them to stave off Ehrlich's challenge.

There's a final, delicious irony to the population changes in Maryland and their political ramifications: The place where the gubernatorial election may pivot is none other than Baltimore County, home to both candidates.

Ehrlich will do well in white, working-class areas like Dundalk, Essex and his hometown, Arbutus. Despite the endorsements of their union bosses, blue-collar men like him. For her part, Townsend will need to translate kitchen-table issues into women's votes in suburban areas like Towson, Reisterstown and Ruxton, where she lives.

The decisive influence of the Big Three - Baltimore City, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties - is exaggerated. Power is shifting elsewhere.

Thomas F. Schaller is a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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