Democrat Barack Obama rolled to victory in Maryland yesterday by getting an overwhelming percentage of the African-American vote and running about even among whites, winning handily in the Baltimore area and suburban Washington, according to exit polling.
Obama, the first African-American nominee of a major American party, took almost 95 percent of the black vote in Maryland, exit polling showed. The Illinois Democrat won among voters of all levels of education in one of the most one-sided contests in the country.
The Maryland exit poll was conducted by Edison Media Research for a consortium of media outlets, including The Baltimore Sun and WYPR. Results were based on as many as 997 interviews with voters upon leaving selected precincts. The fierce back-and-forth of the final two months of the campaign between Obama and Republican John McCain apparently had no effect on two-thirds of Marylanders, who made up their minds before September and stuck by their decision. Only about one in 10 Marylanders made a decision in the final week of the campaign..
Obama appears to have prevailed largely by persuading voters that he - not his Republican rival -- would be the true agent of change in a state where President Bush's approval ratings are scraping the political bottom.
About 55 percent of Maryland voters said McCain would continue Bush's policies, and that group went more than 9-to-1 for Obama. Forty percent accepted his argument that he would take the country in a different direction.
Wayne Scott, 73, of Hampden, is a registered Democrat. He retired after 20 years with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Navy before that. He attended the Naval Academy with John McCain and was in his graduating class, although he said he does not personally know the Arizona senator. He cast his ballot for Obama.
"I have some feeling that not voting for McCain is being disloyal to a classmate, but like Obama says, the country needs change," Scott said. "The president needs to be smart enough to surround himself with people who are smarter than they are. It's pretty obvious to me that Obama has significantly better people around him."
For Mark Branson Sr., 47, the desire for change was strong enough to impel him to cross party lines. A registered Republican voting at the Lombard Middle School in East Baltimore, he was casting his first-ever vote for a Democrat.
"It's time for a change," he said, echoing others.
Branson has been in rehab for nearly three months, working in an alcoholism recovery program and staying at the Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street. The help he's getting spurred him to vote for Obama.
"These programs are drying up, and Obama's for [bolstering] them," said Branson, an out-of-work funeral director. "I have a lot of friends and colleagues and people in this program all coming out to vote. Our country needs as much help as we do."
According to the polls, Branson joined one in seven of his fellow Republicans in Maryland in deserting the GOP in their presidential votes. Obama, meanwhile, was losing only one in 10 Democrats.
Almost nine in 10 voters said race was not an important factor in their decision. Meanwhile, about the same percentage of voters said the age of the candidates was not a factor. McCain was seeking to become the oldest person to win a first term as president.
Carol Rafkin, an African-American independent who was voting in a racially mixed precinct in the Dasher Green neighborhood of Columbia, said race wasn't the reason she voted for Obama. She said that at the beginning of the campaign, she thought it might be a difficult choice because of her high regard for McCain. But as the campaign went on, she became more disillusioned with the Republican - especially his reaction to stock market meltdown.
"John McCain, he was grandstanding. He suspended his campaign then showed up in an interview with Katie Couric," the 60-year-old property manager said. In contrast, she said, Obama appeared "steady in a crisis and not hot-headed."
But for some white voters, race was still a deal-breaker.
Shirley Griffin, an 82-year-old Democrat from Halethorpe, said outside her polling place at the Relay Elementary School that she rejected her party's nominee "because he's black and I don't want a black president."
McCain's strategy of launching harsh attacks against Obama's character appears to have fallen flat with Maryland voters.
Two-thirds of respondents thought the Arizona Republican had attacked Obama unfairly. Fewer than half thought Obama had taken the political low road.
Jim Soltesz of Halethorpe, a Democrat who was leaving his polling place at the Relay Elementary School, said he didn't like McCain's attempts to tie Obama to people whom he has associated with especially onetime Weather Underground bomber William Ayers.
"I just didn't like McCain. The campaign he ran was so negative," said Soltesz, 57.
John Clemens, 30, an independent voting in Columbia, said he was willing to give McCain a shot but was turned off by his campaign. "He didn't push any new ideas except that Barack Obama's a socialist - all the usual things," Clemens said.
With Maryland written off early by Republicans as hopelessly blue, and Democrats concentrating their efforts in more hotly contested states, the two campaigns' ground efforts apparently had little impact here.
About seven in 10 voters said that neither campaign had contacted them. Of those who were contacted, two voters said they had heard from the Obama forces for every one to have been contacted by the McCain campaign.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jennifer McMenamin and Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.
ALMOST 9 IN 10
Voters said race was not an important factor in their decision.The same percentage of voters said the age of the candidates was not a factor.