Maryland voters carried their unhappiness over the war in Iraq to the voting booth yesterday, exit polls show, helping Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin against Republican Michael S. Steele in the race for U.S. Senate.
Sixty-two percent of voters interviewed as they left polling places said the war was either extremely or very important to them in the race between Cardin and Steele. Only 15 percent said it was not at all important in choosing a successor to retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
Sixty-three percent said they disapproved of the war in Iraq, and 62 percent said the United States should withdraw some or all of its troops. About three-fourths of those voters said they cast ballots for Cardin.
Keith Stancil, 51, of East Baltimore said he voted for Cardin because they both oppose the war. "You're sending people over there to die, and what for?" said Stancil, who has relatives in the military. "Everyone wants democracy, but they got Saddam Hussein out of the way, so let the Iraqis build it."
The discontent over the war also tended to hurt Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in his bid for re-election. According to the exit poll, 74 percent of those who disapproved of the war voted for his Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"I think the war in Iraq pointed out that if you're looking for a change in Washington, you're not going to get it from someone who supports the president's policies in Iraq," Cardin said in an interview with WBAL-TV last night. "Someone who stood up to the president four years ago and voted no is the person you wanted to vote for."
Cardin, a 10-term congressman, voted against a House resolution in October 2002 authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq the next year. Cardin has been calling since June for the administration to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
Marylanders' unhappiness with the war, gleaned from a statewide sample of 1,540 voters, mirrored sentiments in nationwide exit polling, which found the war important to nearly two thirds of U.S. voters.
"It takes your breath away, to have one issue be so omnipresent in voters' minds," said pollster Keith Haller, whose Bethesda firm, Potomac Inc., conducted The Sun's pre-election surveys.
While Cardin had been vocal in his opposition to the war, Steele attempted to skirt the issue. In a televised debate late last month, the Republican lieutenant governor had called Iraq "a mess that we need to fix" but said he still would have invaded.
Sixty percent of Maryland voters in the exit polls also expressed disapproval for Bush's job as president, with 82 percent of those disapproving saying they voted for Cardin.
So strong was voter unhappiness over the war and the president, said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, that it seemed to hurt Ehrlich.
For some, he said, "The vote was not against Ehrlich in person, but his party affiliation ... a spillover animosity."
The exit poll was conducted for the Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Results were subject to a sampling error of 4 percentage points, plus or minus, and higher for subgroups.
Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.