Ehrlich working to close the gender gap

Education issues help Republican governor draw women from O'Malley and Democrats

Sun poll

September 24, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun Reporter

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made significant strides among women voters in recent months - eliminating a political gender gap that has historically benefited Democrats, a new poll for The Sun shows.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's support among women dropped from an 11 percentage point lead over Ehrlich in July to 6 percentage points this month, suggesting that Ehrlich's effort to wrest female voters from his Democratic opponent is paying off.

In a series of television advertisements airing in the Baltimore media market over the past several weeks, Ehrlich has pounded on problems faced by the city's schools, stressing an issue that many believe resonates strongly with women. His third advertisement, which began airing in July, features a series of women speaking about the governor's record on education.

"The reason the gap is not there is because the governor has been very believable about his concern for education," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican political strategist who is active in Maryland politics but not involved in Ehrlich's campaign. "In this race, my guess is the gap [over] education is not there."

Forty-one percent of likely voters who are women said they will vote for Ehrlich, compared with 42 percent of men, according to the poll conducted by Potomac Inc., an independent Bethesda-based company. Forty-seven percent of women said they would vote for O'Malley, compared with 49 percent of men.

The survey of 815 likely voters was conducted Sept. 15 to Sept. 18, and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. The error rate is higher when considering subgroups such as men and women.

In a poll conducted for The Sun in July, 46 percent of women voters said they would support O'Malley, compared with 35 percent for Ehrlich. In November, 50 percent of women supported the mayor, with about one in three backing Ehrlich.

"Typically, women have been a good constituency for Democrats to rely on," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. "Certainly, in the last decade there has been a profound gender gap in national politics where women tended to prefer Democratic candidates."

In June, Ehrlich selected a woman as his running mate, state Disabilities Secretary Kristen Cox. If the Republican ticket wins, Cox would be the state's second female lieutenant governor, after Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But experts almost universally agree that few if any state voters choose a governor based on his running mate.

Many women voters who responded to the poll and indicated that they would vote for Ehrlich raised education as a primary issue.

"I figure, if [O'Malley] can't fix the schools in Baltimore, he can't fix the schools in the rest of state," said Tonja Winters of Severn, a stay-at-home mother who indicated that she would probably vote for Ehrlich. Winters, who is 28 and who described herself as a Republican, has two children in school.

Education has been a politically charged issue in Maryland for months. Earlier this year, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed taking control of 11 chronically failing middle and high schools in the city. But the plan, which Ehrlich supported and has since noted in campaign advertisements, was blocked by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. O'Malley supported the legislature's decision.

Control of city schools is shared between the city and the state.

Respondents were evenly split when asked which candidate would do a better job improving public schools. Forty percent chose O'Malley,and 40 percent chose Ehrlich.

The gender gap, the difference in candidate support between the sexes, is a regular feature of modern elections that tends to benefit Democrats and also tends to be more pronounced in national politics than in state races. In 1960, men and women were just as likely to be registered as Democrats or Republicans. Since then, male affiliation with the Democratic Party has dropped about 20 percentage points.

Maryland's higher-than-average education level - and the high margin of voters who are enrolled as Democrats here - may partly explain why the gap is much less pronounced, one expert speculated.

"It very well could be that the men in Maryland are more similar in their political preferences to Maryland women than they are in other states," said Karen M. Kaufmann, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park who has written extensively on the gender gap in elections.

"What you're really looking at is not that women are more liberal, but that it's men who may be more liberal," she said.

How the poll was conducted

The Sun poll was conducted by Potomac Inc., an independent survey research firm based in Bethesda that has been polling for the newspaper since 1998 and has been surveying Maryland voters on issues and politics for more than 20 years.

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