Polls show the points

points show the trends

November 07, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Inside the gubernatorial bunker today, someone with a political memory that goes back longer than 10 minutes will invoke the name of Harry Hughes. He is Maryland's patron saint of floundering political campaigns. When Hughes ran for governor, his poll numbers were so bad that state Sen. Harry McGuirk famously referred to him as "a lost ball in high grass." But Hughes mowed everybody down on Election Day.

Robert L. Ehrlich's numbers aren't as bad as Hughes's were 30 years ago - but nobody's doing cartwheels in the governor's office today. Yesterday we heard from the independent, nonpartisan polling firm Potomac Inc. Its numbers say Ehrlich trails Democratic Mayor Martin O'Malley, his chief competitor, by 15 points. It says Ehrlich trails Democratic Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan by 5 points, even though Duncan is still formally known to thousands of Maryland voters as Doug Who?

So somebody in the governor's bunker is bound to mention Hughes today. If he could rally, anybody can. When Hughes ran for governor, his poll numbers were in single figures. Everybody thought the race was strictly between Blair Lee, the acting governor, and Ted Venetoulis, the Baltimore County executive. They were the Democratic primary headline guys; Hughes was a barely known cabinet officer who had already given up on himself.

But, in a contentious time, Hughes' anonymity became a gift. He sneaked in under everybody's radar. Ehrlich is different. He hasn't stopped campaigning since he got the job. He's in political commercials, which fool nobody, that masquerade as spots promoting his state. He's on talk radio every time he wants, lamenting all the mean people who dare to criticize him. He turned loose a guy named Joseph Steffen, who spread salacious rumors and aimed to take away people's jobs, and now the governor's people strain to make Steffen look like some kind of victim.

In other words, everybody knows Ehrlich's record. He has spent three years making slot machines his great crusade, and wasted everybody's time. He has buddied up to George W. Bush - and this, too, now works against him. Three years ago, according to Potomac's numbers, Bush had 83 percent approval in Maryland. Now, in the midst of the Iraq catastrophe and Hurricane Katrina and the CIA leak and Supreme Court bungling and Tom DeLay, it's 33 percent.

And while hard-line Democratic and Republican loyalists tend to cement themselves into place, Ehrlich's numbers among independents have fallen 11 points since last winter. And, among "likely" voters - those who have voted in at least three of the past four statewide elections - his net approval ratings have dropped from 17 points to 10.

So somebody will mention Hughes today, and try to slough off all the bad numbers. They'll trot out McGuirk's old "lost ball" line, and they'll recall how Lee and Venetoulis were blindsided. Venetoulis, by the way, remembers all of it. When the new numbers came out yesterday, it immediately took him back to the Hughes campaign.

"Nobody thought Harry had a chance," Venetoulis, long since retired from politics, said. "Blair Lee and I kind of ignored him. Harry'd be standing in the back of a hall, in a corner. I'd introduce him to the crowd. I figured, `Why not?' I wanted to be polite, and maybe get his votes. But then everything shifted to him.

"The thing is," said Venetoulis, "when it comes to polls, you look for trends. What all these new numbers seem to say is there's a slide in Republican popularity across the country - and Maryland might be part of it. In Harry Hughes' case, his numbers shot up overnight. What can happen then is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and take on a life of their own."

Last January, Potomac had O'Malley and Ehrlich dead even. In April, O'Malley had a 6-point lead. Now it's 15 points. That is a trend. Last January, Ehrlich led Duncan by 13 points. By April, it was down to 6 points. Now Duncan leads by 5. That is also a trend. It's a 15-point trend for O'Malley, and it's an 18-point turnaround for a guy, Duncan, who's still trying to get people to know his name.

"Obviously," Venetoulis remarked, "it's far too early for anybody to declare victory." The election's still a year off. "But there seems to be a pretty substantial trend here."

In their gubernatorial bunker, Ehrlich's people might invoke one more name: Parris Glendening. At his best, Glendening's approval rating was 56 percent. When he left office, it was 30 percent. Ehrlich's approval rating is 50 percent.

Here's Ehrlich's problem. Glendening's unpopularity transferred to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was his lieutenant governor and tried to succeed him. She couldn't get out of Glendening's way. At this point, judging by the new statewide polling, Ehrlich can't get out of his own way.


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