A blue state gets even bluer

October 05, 2008|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Just a couple of years ago, when Republican Bob Ehrlich was governor of Maryland and running for re-election, he stood next to Rudy Giuliani at a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser in Baltimore, and the former New York City mayor took questions from reporters. When one brought up Maryland's blue statehood, Ehrlich stepped forward to make a correction.

"Light blue," he said, and ha-ha-ha and hee-hee-hee - that Bobby Slots was some funny guy, no?

Calling Maryland "light blue," suggesting that Democratic power is thin here, was wishful thinking on Ehrlich's part. He was trying to be an optimist, of course, and that's understandable. But when it comes to colors, let's just say I'm glad Bob Ehrlich isn't doing mine.

Light blue? If anything, Maryland was some kind of purple at the time - dark purple on the blue side, or whatever you get when you go down to Budeke's and mix two gallons of Democratic blue with one gallon of Republican red. In 2006, four years after Ehrlich's election supposedly signaled a GOP renaissance here, Maryland Democrats still outnumbered Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin and Ehrlich's party was losing ground.

In fact, from 2002 to 2006, the growth in both independents and Democrats outpaced new Republican registrations by a 4-to-1 margin.

In January 2003, when Ehrlich took office, there were 1,568,027 Democrats and 841,520 Republicans registered with the Maryland Board of Elections. By the summer of 2006, the gap had widened further, to nearly 800,000.

Now, heading toward the presidential election of 2008, the gap is gaping and the donkey braying.

The difference between registered Democrats and registered Republicans is nearly 950,000.

Maryland is still purple, but it's the bluest kind - indigo purple, midnight purple, post-Bush-Bobby purple.

This is all new growth on the Democratic vine, fed mainly by enthusiasm for Barack Obama and something the Republicans in this state don't understand - the hard sweat of voter registration efforts.

Some of the new registration undoubtedly represents voters switching from Republican or "unaffiliated" to the blue party, though to what extent officials of the Board of Elections can't say; they don't have easy access to that information. But voter shifting is a national trend. It's safe to assume that growth in Democratic rolls comes from Obamamania among the young and, to some extent, men and women who've made a decision to switch their party affiliation.

(Independents also continue to grow - there were 515,239 Marylanders listed as "unaffiliated" or "other" by Thursday.)

So what does all of this mean?

So what if Maryland, a blue state on the TV maps, becomes even bluer? We're not "in play."

The campaign of John McCain has rolled through here once or twice, but certainly Republican strategists assume the state's 10 electoral votes are going to Obama. (Historical note: This state might be historically Democratic, but it still at times went for Republicans - George H.W. Bush in 1988, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Richard Nixon in 1972.)

This is what the 2008 numbers mean: a tremendous desire for the change Obama has been talking about and, between the Iraq war and economic conditions, a lot of deep-seated unhappiness over the nation's journey during the Bush-Cheney years.

But if it's assumed this blue state is going for the Democratic candidate this time, then why are so many people still registering to vote? And why are so many people calling the Board of Elections to make sure they're still registered?

Linda Lamone, the state's elections administrator, says that's one of the most telling indicators of voter interest - the "tons of calls and e-mails" from Marylanders to the state and local election boards to see if they're still on the books. Those are people who might have lost interest in politics and elections for a while but who now want to cast their votes, Lamone says.

They might live in Maryland - the blue state that Chris Matthews and the TV pundits hardly ever mention - but they still have a desire to make a statement.

A Maryland Democrat can almost be excused for feeling his or her vote is superfluous. If a Democratic voter expects Obama to take the state - and probably most of them do - why stand in a long line with other Democrats on Election Day? It has been a long campaign - too long - and you could understand why a Maryland Democrat might want to take a walk on this election by now.

But that's not the story. That's not what's happening.

The story is big blue voter registration in a state already solidly blue, and Lamone is expecting a record turnout here.

Every state is different, and you run the risk of foolishness in extrapolating from Maryland's numbers a trend for the nation. But if we find this high level of interest here, then there's an Election Day earthquake brewing.

And that's not just a hunch. Voter registration is off the charts in many states, with a partisan shift to blue in several states.

In Virginia, which will be watched a lot more closely than Maryland on Election Day, registration in September showed a net increase of 101,737 voters, and the Obama campaign believes 80 percent of them are for their man, according to The Washington Post.

Here's another thing, and perhaps the best thing: According to Lamone's staff, the percentage of 18- and 19-year-olds registering to vote for the first time has been unusually high this year. These young Marylanders make up 27.5 percent of all registrations in 2008. In the past four presidential election years, they represented about 11 percent of the electorate. As I say, something big's brewing.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" on Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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