How Ehrlich Could Win

Trends In State And National Politics Give Ex-governor What May Be His Last Opportunity

December 15, 2009|By Todd Eberly

As many Marylanders focus on whether former Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr. will seek a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley, the most interesting question, and likely the one that Mr. Ehrlich is asking, is: "Can he win?"

Much has changed since 2002, when Mr. Ehrlich defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to become the state's first Republican to be elected governor in nearly 40 years. Mr. Ehrlich would do well to consider those changes. In 2006, Mr. Ehrlich lost to Mr. O'Malley by roughly 117,000 votes out of the 1.8 million cast. Since then, Democratic registration in the Free State has swelled by 384,000 while the Republican ranks have grown by only 73,000. As of October 2009, the State Board of Elections reports that 56.8 percent of registered voters are Democrats and 26.6 percent are Republicans. Mr. Ehrlich must wonder how he can overcome the Democrats' registration advantage.

I examined voter registration data, turnout, Democratic and Republican performance, and voter loyalty in the last four gubernatorial elections and found that Mr. Ehrlich's road back to Annapolis would be steep but not insurmountable, and the outcome of his journey would likely rely on national political trends as well as issues specific to Maryland.

The Democratic Party's overwhelming registration advantage is clearly no guarantor of victory, as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening barely won in 1994 and Mr. Ehrlich won in 2002. In fact, Democrats claimed a slightly greater registration advantage in 1994 than today, yet even with 750,000 more registered voters, Mr. Glendening won by fewer than 6,000 votes. In 2002, the Democratic advantage was slightly smaller than today, but Mr. Ehrlich won by a 67,000-vote margin. The competitiveness of Republican candidates suggests that many registered Democrats are not loyal to the party, at least not when choosing a governor.

I found that increased turnout by registered Democrats in 1994 and 2002 actually boosted Republican vote totals. In general, Democratic gubernatorial candidates tend to under-perform relative to their party's registration advantage, and Republican candidates tend to over-perform. In 1994 and 2002, the Democratic candidate's total vote share on Election Day equaled only 80.5 percent and 83 percent, respectively of the registered Democrats who voted. Republican candidates' vote totals were 155.6 percent and 156.5 percent of the Republicans who voted. Translation? Many Democrats and a significant number of independent and unaffiliated voters voted Republican. In the two elections that produced clear Democratic victories, 1998 and 2006, Democratic turnout was down relative to 1994 and 2002, but the Democratic candidate performed strongly among those who did vote.

To reclaim his old job, Mr. Ehrlich would need to do what he did in 2002: maximize Republican turnout, appeal to the growing number of independent voters, and draw out Republican-leaning Democrats.

The GOP's strongest recent years in Maryland - 1994 and 2002 - coincided with very strong years for Republicans nationally. Likewise, 1998 and 2006 were very strong years for the Democrats, and this was felt in Maryland as well. Should Mr. Ehrlich run again, he would need the added lift of a strong Republican wave. Current polling for the congressional midterms signals that 2010 is shaping up to be an election in the 1994 and 2002 mold. The recent Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia also suggest that Republican voters are energized and that independents are gravitating to the GOP.

In a bad sign for Democrats, recent gains in Democratic Party registration in New Jersey and Virginia failed to materialize as voters in 2009. In Maryland, it is possible that much of the increase in party registration may have been from voters simply seeking to participate in the historic 2008 primary. If that's the case, then the Democrats' registration advantage in Maryland may be overstated. Based on prior trends, I estimate that the party's current registration advantage may be exaggerated by 100,000 to 200,000 voters.

When I simulated an Ehrlich/O'Malley rematch using current registration data but assuming the conditions that produced the narrow GOP loss in 1994 and the Ehrlich victory in 2002, I found that Mr. Ehrlich would lose to Mr. O'Malley in 2010, though narrowly. But when I accounted for the possibility that the Democrats' registration advantage is overstated, I found that Mr. Ehrlich would win under either a 1994 or 2002 scenario. That may not provide overly encouraging news for Mr. Ehrlich and his supporters, but it does show that he has a fighting chance.

Encouraging or not, 2010 provides Mr. Ehrlich with his best chance at winning statewide office in Maryland. If he waits until 2012 and decides to challenge Sen. Ben Cardin, then he would face the likely strong coattails of Mr. Cardin's ballot-mate, President Barack Obama. If he waits until 2014 to seek a return to the governor's mansion, his eight-year hiatus from office would eliminate any claim as presumptive Republican nominee.

For Bob Ehrlich, it may be now or never.

Todd Eberly is an assistant professor of political science and coordinator of Public Policy Studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland. A detailed analysis can be found at the freestaterblog.blogspot.com. His e-mail is teeberly@smcm.edu.

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