Lalso Boyd: It's Party Time

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Maryland Democrats are planning to organize a party.  In the hope that it will turn out better than the 2014 version, they’ve picked two wild and crazy guys to make sure that people show up and all dance to the same tune. 

Okay, maybe no one has ever called them wild and crazy, but Bruce Poole and Pat Murray certainly have the credentials to put together a party.  And Maryland Democrats definitely need a new party.  This need arises from a mix of one-time problems and long-term structural challenges.

It might be tempting to say that the 2014 state election was disastrous for the Dems entirely because they had a not-ready-for prime time candidate who ran a dreadful campaign.  While that does have more than a little truth to it, the party’s problems go beyond Anthony Brown’s missteps last year.

Looking back over more than two decades of elections, Democrats, despite their huge voter registration advantage, have struggled after each eight-year term of an activist governor.  In 1994, Parris Glendening barely squeaked in after William Donald Schaefer’s eight tumultuous years of office.  In 2002, Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wasn’t as fortunate.

Townsend’s loss to Bob Ehrlich in 2002 was widely seen as the result of a poorly run campaign, generally regarded as the worst until Brown’s effort last year.  However, this pattern suggests that Maryland isn’t quite as dark blue a state as national commentators sometimes suggest.

Challenge Number One for Poole and Murray in other words is to get the party over its complacency.   Merely showing up, as Brown did last year, is not enough to guarantee victory.

Additionally, Murray identified a fundamental organizational problem in the state that goes back to at least the 2008 Presidential election.  Maryland went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama that year.  The outcome seemed clear so early in the election that many Maryland Democrats actually ended up going to Virginia and Pennsylvania to help the candidate carry those states.

The same thing happened in 2012.  As a result, many Maryland Democrats did not even hear from the party during those two election cycles.  They were taken for granted and didn’t receive the constant reinforcement that is essential for all but the most committed voters.  While “Organizing for Obama” was actively involved in recruiting and communicating with voters, the State Democratic Party was not.

Somewhat similarly, you can see the 2006 and 2010 elections in the State as much more about Martin O’Malley’s candidacy than about the Democratic Party.  But, with O’Malley as the state’s leading Democrat, there was little or no independence within the Party from his personal goals and objectives.

That gets us to Challenge Number Two.  While the registration numbers are certainly good for Democrats, the sense of being part of an organization or a movement has been neglected over the last several election cycles.  To employ a widely used expression, Maryland Democrats have to rebuild from the grassroots up.  Their leaders have to offer ideals, programs and candidates that matter at the local level.

There is one more big challenge and it is one that faces Democrats on the national level as well as in Maryland.  Going back to 1992, Democrats have been very successful at turning out supporters in national elections.  The drop-off in the off-year state elections has been dramatic and has led to awful showings in gubernatorial and state legislative races.

How do you motivate and engage voters who care about who will be president but not about local offices?   The ability of the Democratic Party to get young people and minorities to the polls to support their Presidential candidate is impressive and indeed has been decisive more than once.  The problem is that those voters stay home during state elections.  As a result, Republicans draw legislative districts, cut state budgets, write absurd laws about abortion and women’s rights and want everyone to own and carry as many guns as possible.

All of those factors add up to a really big challenge for Poole and Murray.  On the other hand, they have a lot going for them.

In the first place, they have the solid support of the Party’s leadership.  Neither was the handpicked selection of a single individual.  Moreover, because the party does not control the Governor’s Office, they have considerably more latitude to figure out and implement what is best for Democrats across the board

You wouldn’t describe either one of them as on the fringe of the ideological spectrum.  Both are pragmatic moderates who know how to get results.  After an election in which a lot of Democrats deserted the party’s gubernatorial candidate as well a number of legislative office holders, figuring out how to get those voters back into the party fold requires understanding why they voted for Larry Hogan.

One template is to assess voters who went for both Hogan and Brian Frosh.  The Attorney General is clearly in the progressive wing of the party but didn’t have any trouble gaining the support of many voters who abandoned Anthony Brown. 

Number crunching is definitely a part of modern politics.  So is determining what message will resonate with voters.  For some time, though, the focus is likely to be on building an organizational structure that reaches out to and communicates regularly with a broad spectrum of people who have identified themselves as Democrats. 

What 2014 and those earlier elections showed clearly is that those voters cannot be taken for granted.  Poole and Murray have their work cut out for them, but it’s hard to imagine two people better qualified for the job than they are.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.