A deepening divide redefining state politics

Election: Increasing polarization is likely to make political landscape more interesting and challenging for both Republicans and Democrats.

December 12, 2004|By Herbert C. Smith and John T. Willis | Herbert C. Smith and John T. Willis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MARYLAND is a solid Democratic rock in a rising Republican sea, a situation that appeared to have been clearly validated by last month's election results - Sen. John Kerry's statewide trouncing of President Bush and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's drubbing of deep-pocketed GOP state Sen. E.J. Pipkin.

But, at the state Republicans' fall convention, party Chairman John Kane spoke of "astonishing gains" for the GOP and of Maryland becoming "a legitimate two-party" state.

In truth, the 2004 election returns do reveal some impressive Republican highlights.

Indeed, both parties have significantly strengthened their bases in Maryland. That polarization is setting the stage for more interesting and challenging races in coming years with fewer swing counties in play.

Bush received the highest number of votes, 1,024,565, ever recorded for any Republican presidential candidate in Maryland. He improved on his 2000 election vote percentage in 17 counties and achieved the greatest historic absolute winning vote margins (Bush's votes to Kerry's votes) in 11 of Maryland's 24 subdivisions.

And Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett, the only Republicans in Maryland's congressional delegation, easily cruised to re-election victories with 76 percent and 67 percent of the votes in their 1st and 6th districts, respectively.

Maryland Democrats also had much to applaud.

Kerry's 1,334,414 popular votes represent the highest number of votes for any presidential candidate in Maryland history.

Kerry's total was surpassed by Mikulski's 1,504,569 votes, again a record for a statewide candidate. Like their Republican House colleagues, all six incumbent Democratic congressmen were re-elected by substantial margins.

The strong Democratic and Republican performances reflect the fact that a number of counties that had once been up for grabs now have solid Democratic or Republican majorities, leaving only a handful more evenly divided.

Maryland's 2004 presidential voting patterns amply reflect this growing political polarization. In the past four presidential elections, 15 mostly rural counties always supported the Republican candidate, while four counties (Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's) and Baltimore City always voted Democratic. Only four counties (Charles, Dorchester, Kent and Somerset) can be considered "swing" districts.

Few jurisdictions in Maryland can be considered "average." Only four counties (Baltimore, Charles, Howard, and Kent) had Bush and Kerry vote percentages that were within 10 points of their state averages while nine jurisdictions (Baltimore City and Allegany, Caroline, Carroll, Garrett, Harford, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and Washington counties) were more than 20 points away.

In contrast, 20 Maryland counties were within 10 percentage points of the state averages in the presidential elections of 1976 (Jimmy Carter versus Gerald Ford) and 18 in 1980 (Ronald Reagan versus Carter).

Added to this widening polarization are other trends - a rise in the number of independent voters and a southwestern shift in voting power to the Washington metropolitan area.

Unaffiliated voters constitute 15 percent of the total registered voters in the state, the highest percentage since registration was first kept statewide by party in 1914. The number of Maryland independents has doubled over the past 20 years; and between 2000 and 2004, new unaffiliated registered voters provided 31 percent of the net overall increase statewide.

Finally, the 2004 results show that Maryland elections are no longer decided primarily in the Baltimore metropolitan area. The new electoral tipping point is decidedlyin Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The state's most populous subdivision, Montgomery is far and away No. 1 in potential and real voting power.

In the election, Montgomery recorded an 80 percent turnout of its 517,184 registered voters producing a record 416,303 votes. And Prince George's achieved second place in registered voters with 466,621 last year, eclipsing Baltimore County by nearly 28,000 voters. Together, Montgomery and Prince George's counties account for almost one-third of Maryland's registered voters and cast more ballots than 18 of the remaining 22 subdivisions in the 2004 presidential election.

What do increased polarization, more independent voters and a D.C.-area tilt mean to the future of Maryland politics?

First and foremost, winning will require high-quality candidates and high-quality campaigns. As Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 upset demonstrated, Democrats can no longer emerge victorious by just showing up. Contemporary Maryland voters demand more, a sense of purpose and priorities that are realistic and effective.

Appealing to the partisan polarized base will no longer suffice; only coalition-builders need apply. And finally, a working knowledge of the Capital Beltway wouldn't hurt.

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