How talent and the blue tide swept Martin O'Malley to victory

November 12, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was in a virtual tie with his Democratic challenger, Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore. And Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was gaining on Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

All the political chatter in those days was about an impending phenomenon: the Republicans, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele, bucking the national trend. How was such a thing possible?

It was possible, of course, but it didn't happen.

Why? Here's a theory.

In the case of Mr. Ehrlich, the power of incumbency was enough to blunt the force of opposition to the war. That, combined with Mr. Ehrlich's personal popularity, kept the race close. The Democratic tide was there, but you didn't see it in the poll numbers.

Mr. Steele's inspired television advertising - the talk of Maryland politics for several weeks - made him competitive in a race with the far more accomplished Mr. Cardin. Mr. Steele was also an increasingly good candidate, doing well in debates and appearing to close the gap with Mr. Cardin.

Then came what candidates - particularly those who are trailing - like to call the only poll that counts: Election Day.

Many observers of these two Maryland races thought they would tighten and be decided in the end by turnout. That assessment was even more accurate than usual. Every election, save landslides, is decided on Election Day. That's the day candidates collect the dividends of all those campaign investments: the ads, the coffee hours and the sign-waving.

Mr. O'Malley may wish to thank the national tide for providing a force that kept Mr. Ehrlich at bay. Incumbency is almost an immovable object, fortified as it is by a governor's or a senator's or a mayor's ability to do favors large and small, to stack up Election Day IOUs. That power is undermined for Republicans in states such as Maryland by the traditional Democratic instinct. But it's still potent.

In many recent years, Maryland Democrats have fielded formidable unity teams, combined or coordinated campaigns - synergistic alliances that made them difficult to turn aside. Their forays had a name: "zip trips." For various reasons, these trips lost a little of that zip four years ago, when Mr. Ehrlich won.

This year, in the Baltimore region, the O'Malley forces merged seamlessly with the forces of Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. The result: Baltimore County split almost 50-50 between Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich - though Baltimore County is the governor's home base. Four years ago, Mr. Ehrlich took well over 60 percent of the vote there.

Similar incursions were made by the O'Malley forces in many other counties where Mr. Ehrlich had run far ahead of his 2002 opponent.

These better results were achieved by one of the most sophisticated and detail-oriented get-out-the-vote operations in state history. In particular, this effort focused on so-called drop-off voters - Democrats who had not voted in recent elections. This was Maryland's answer to the vaunted microtargeting of the Republicans: targeting that finds likely voters and haunts them till they've made it to the polls.

Then there was the experience factor.

Beginning with the candidate himself, the O'Malley team had considerable experience and talent - and not just in Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley has worked on national campaigns, with former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart and others. In Maryland, he managed his own campaigns for the state Senate and City Council. And he had done the same for his father-in-law, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

His brother, Peter, also brought important credentials to the planning table. He had managed his father Tom's campaign for state's attorney in Montgomery County. So that important battleground was not alien territory to the O'Malley forces.

There were many other talented operatives in the O'Malley boiler room, including the campaign's field director, Brian Hammock, and Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, who had worked in her own challenging campaigns for her former boss, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, and for presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis.

This group must surely have relished the arrival of an Election Day in which they were tied with their incumbent opponent. Surely they were grateful for the national anti-war and anti-President Bush dynamic.

But they were confident that, in the only poll that matters, they knew where their voters were and how to turn them out.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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