Maryland Democrats are a largely liberal lot looking to nominate a like-minded candidate to take on Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2018.
But Democratic voters are highly undecided when it comes to assessing the field of contenders for their gubernatorial nomination – and there doesn’t appear to be one issue galvanizing them as they prepare to take on the popular governor.
Nine months before the Democratic primary, nearly half of all likely Democratic voters remain undecided about who should be their nominee, according to a poll released Tuesday by Goucher College. And voters barely know any of the candidates – even those whose political careers stretch back to the 1990’s.
Goucher’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Center for Politics surveyed 324 likely Democratic primary voters about the upcoming election Sept. 14-17. The poll had a 5.4-point margin of error.
“Maryland Democrats find themselves in an unfamiliar position, as challengers to a popular Republican governor without a well-known frontrunner,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
If the survey results can be summed up in one word, it’s inconclusive. They also show how wide open the Democratic race is.
But there are still a few nuggets for political professionals to dig in to.
The so-called horse race numbers, about the state of the primary race, do not reveal a lot – except for the fact that all of the candidates have to work hard to become better known to voters.
“The good news for all the candidates is that without an early favorite and with plenty of time to make a connection with voters, it’s anybody’s race,” Kromer said.
Even though there are seven declared candidates for the Democratic nomination, the poll featured questions about nine individuals – the seven who are in the race along with former state Attorney General Doug Gansler, who ran for governor in 2014 and recently acknowledged he would not try again next year, and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant and wife of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) who said during the summer she was pondering the race but has yet to take any public steps to run.
The pollsters initially asked voters whether they would consider voting for each of the contenders, and the answers immediately revealed how little-known the candidates are.
Gansler, who spent eight years in statewide office and eight years as the top prosecutor in Montgomery County, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, topped that list, with 28 percent of Democrats saying they would consider voting for him in the primary. Ten percent of the poll respondents said they would not consider voting for him. But 61 percent said they did not know enough about him to judge.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who is completing his second term and also spent eight years in the House of Delegates, was next on the list: 21 percent of Democrats said they would consider voting for him, 8 percent said they would not, and 70 percent said they did not know enough to judge.
Seventeen percent of voters said they would consider Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who is in his second term and also spent four terms on the County Council, in the primary. Ten percent said they would not, while 72 percent said they did not know enough to form an opinion.
Former NAACP President Ben Jealous was next on the list, with 14 percent saying they would consider voting for him, 9 percent saying they would not and 77 percent saying they did not know enough. He was followed by Cummings: 9 percent of voters said they would consider her, 4 percent said they would not, and 86 percent said they did not know enough to judge.
State Sen. Rich Madaleno was next on the list, with 8 percent saying they would consider voting for him, 5 percent saying they would not, and 86 percent saying they did not know enough to judge. Baltimore attorney Jim Shea was next, with 6 percent considering supporting him, 8 percent saying they would not, and 86 percent saying they did not know enough.
Five percent of Democrats said they would consider voting for tech entrepreneur and former State Department official Alec Ross, 5 percent said they would not, and 89 percent said they did not know enough to form an opinion. Two percent of voters said they would consider voting for former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah, while 5 percent said they would not. A striking 93 percent of Democrats said they did not know enough about her to judge.
When all the candidates were matched together, Baker finished at the top of the heap with 13 percent, followed by Gansler at 11 percent, Kamenetz and Cummings at 8 percent each, Jealous at 6 percent, Madaleno and Shea at 2 percent each, and Ross and Vignarajah at 1 percent each. The rest of the Democrats surveyed said they did not know who they would vote for, mentioned someone else or refused to reveal their preference.
The top four finishers are within the poll’s margin of error, heightening the inconclusiveness. And it’s not clear where the voters who preferred Gansler and Cummings would go if their first choices were not on the ballot.
Even if voters did not shed a lot of light on the current state of the horse race, one thing is apparent from the poll: It’s a fairly liberal electorate looking for a progressive nominee.
Just under half of the Democrats surveyed – 49 percent – described themselves as liberal. Thirty-eight percent were self-described moderates, and 12 percent characterized themselves as conservative.
When asked whether they’d like their gubernatorial nominee to be more progressive, more moderate or more conservative, 55 percent said progressive, 34 percent said moderate and 8 percent said conservative.
As with any statewide Democratic contest in Maryland, ideology, geography, race, ethnicity and gender – among the candidates and the electorate – will be likely factors in how voters will decide in the primary. But this cycle, many analysts believe outsider candidates may do better than they usually do in Maryland – a hard consideration to measure at this early stage of the primary campaign.
Asked which issue would most determine how they vote, 26 percent of Democrats said education, 21 percent said the economy and jobs, 16 percent said racial and social justice issues, 15 percent said health care, 7 percent said the environment, 6 percent said taxes, 5 percent said transportation and infrastructure, and the rest identified other issues or did not answer.
For all voters in Maryland – not just Democrats – the economy topped the list of greatest concerns heading into the election.
Click here to see the poll.