Laslo Boyd: Are We There Yet?

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The Democratic Gubernatorial Primary campaign, which started more than a year ago, will reach its conclusion this coming Tuesday. If the recent polls turn out to be accurate, relatively little that has happened during that year will have made much of a difference.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was the designated choice of most of the state’s Democratic establishment, backing which has made Brown’s campaign look more like a coronation than a true contest. Sports metaphors abound to describe his approach to the election. To pick one, he must be exhausted from 12 months of dribbling to run out the clock on his opponents. 

After a year, we still know relatively little about Brown beyond his official biography and a lot of vague plans to take all the good things from the eight years of the O’Malley-Brown Administration and make them better. We know he served in the military but have no idea how that experience may have affected his management style or his views on leadership.

Brown was, as his campaign website tells us, the “point man” on health care reform for Maryland, but not the person responsible for the failures of the health care website. In what I think has been his most egregious failure of leadership, he has moved from evasion to evasion in his explanation of what his actual role was with respect to that website. And, despite abundant national data that says otherwise, Brown has found ways to spin the failure into success.

None of that, as of the latest polls, has mattered. Brown seems to have a comfortable lead and is poised to take the Democratic nomination. He may even make a terrific governor, but he has done little during this campaign to make the case for himself other than to say that he is next in line.

Of course, there are still votes to be counted and sometimes an expected result doesn’t materialize. Ask Eric Cantor. Long shots sometimes win and upsets do occur. If they didn’t, no one would ever take the enormous risk of running against a favorite. 

There have been stories this week that Heather Mizeur’s supporters are encouraged by Cantor’s stunning and unexpected defeat last week. Can Mizeur pull a “David Brat” in the gubernatorial race?

She has, it is widely acknowledged, run the best campaign of the three candidates.  Mizeur has presented the most distinctive positions on a number of issues. She has energized her backers in a way that neither Brown nor Doug Gansler has. As a relative unknown at the start of the campaign, she has attracted lots of attention despite having to rely on public financing.

And she has resolutely avoided negative campaigning. That reality sets her apart from David Brat’s road to victory. His upset win seems to have been driven heavily by anti-Cantor votes. Mizeur has never really tried to make the anti-Brown case, but, rather, has relied on the appeal of her issues and her passion for them.

If Mizeur wins next Tuesday, it will have nothing to do with the example of that ground shaking election in Virginia. And with only 15% of the vote in the most recent poll, it’s still really hard to see how she makes up the large gap between her and Brown.

The third candidate, Doug Gansler, stumbled badly last summer and for at least some voters never recovered. I actually don’t think, however, that those early problems have been decisive. Gansler, who had the best overall credentials in this race in terms of prior leadership positions, has never figured out how to pierce the aura of inevitability that Brown established from the start.

Will the Attorney General’s late barrage of television ads turn the tide? Or did he wait too long to try to define Anthony Brown as not up to the job? Gansler, who had not run in a competitive election for eight years, improved as a candidate as the campaign progressed, but needs a dramatic surge between now and Tuesday to be competitive.

Various other names surfaced as potential candidates over the past year.  All of them — Ken Ulman before he joined the Brown ticket, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, Congressman John Delaney — would have faced the same obstacle of a state Democratic establishment united behind Anthony Brown. That so many names popped up during the campaign suggests unease about Brown, but at the end of the day, none of them thought it could be a winning fight.

Will the polls turn out to be accurate? It’s a tough business because your work is out there for everyone to see. You have to wonder if Eric Cantor’s pollster, who told him he was ahead by over 30 points, might have trouble finding future clients.

Pollsters construct models of the electorate based in part on previous elections.  If the composition of the electorate changes or the turnout is much higher or lower than projected, the poll numbers can be way off. The general consensus has been that this is likely to be a low turnout election. It’s hard to imagine that changing despite the strong early voter turnout. 

That one is easy to explain. Habitual voters take advantage of early voting.  Undecided Marylanders do not. Moreover, the campaigns are all encouraging their committed supporters to vote early. They are still trying to persuade the undecideds.

If you haven’t voted yet, pay no attention to any of the predictions in this column. Elections are decided by ballots, not by polls or in the press. And don’t worry about me if I’m wrong on anything I’ve written here.  There’s still a General Election to discuss.

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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.