When the top Democrats running for governor gather in a TV studio on Monday — for what will most likely be the most watched debate of the primary — they will do so against the backdrop of the first independent reading of the July 19 primary.
A Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll published on Sunday suggests the race for the Democratic nomination has three candidates firmly in double-digits.
Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot had the support of 20% of Democrats surveyed, author and former non-profit CEO Wes Moore had 15% support, and former U.S. Labor Secretary and DNC chairman Tom Perez had 12% support.
A survey of likely Republican voters found that former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz led Del. Dan Cox 27% to 21%, with two attorneys — Robin Ficker and Joe Werner — polling at 5% and 4% respectively.
In both cases, undecided voters led the way — with 31% undecided in the Democratic primary and 42% undecided on the GOP side.
The surveys of 562 likely Democratic primary voters and 428 likely Republican primary voters were conducted by telephone and online May 27 through June 2 by OpinionWorks, an old line Annapolis-based polling firm. The surveys had a margin of error of 4.1 points for Democrats and 4.7 points for Republicans.
With Democrats preparing for Monday’s Maryland Public Television debate, which will air on MPT stations and on WBAL-TV and WBAL Radio at 7 p.m. (media outlets and interest groups have been unable to get Republicans to share a stage thus far), the Sun/UB poll provides a long-sought window into the races that will determine who will square off in the November general election.
Although there are still innumerable unknowns in both party contests, here are eight takeaways from the surveys:
- Huge swaths of the electorate remain undecided. And who can blame them? First the primary was scheduled for the week before the July 4 holiday, then it moved to July 19, then the political class braced for it to be moved again — to mid-August — which ended up not happening. No wonder voters are having trouble focusing. It’s a good bet that most still don’t know when the primary is, except for party activists and insiders. Turnout in gubernatorial primaries always lags compared to presidential years, and it’s likely to be lower than usual this time, with the voting dead in the middle of summer and many voters planning their vacations. How do the undecideds break in the weeks ahead, and how do the campaigns reach them?
- Every candidate in the Democratic race wishes he (yes, they’re all men) was leading the field, and Franchot is in the pole position in the Sun/UB survey. That’s no surprise. The campaign-funded Democratic primary polls that have become public this election cycle all put Franchot in front. Franchot is in an enviable position — you always want to be ahead in the campaign’s homestretch. But his lead is unimpressive, and he hasn’t gained ground in the past nine months. Although Franchot has won big statewide victories the last four election cycles, 80% of Maryland Democrats support one of his rivals or are undecided. Is there room for growth in the final six weeks? While it’s entirely possible that he will be able to blitz the airwaves in the final weeks of the campaign and eke out a victory, it’s pretty clear that Franchot’s apparent strategy of winning voters over one proclamation at a time has yet to seal the deal. His onetime financial advantage is gone, and Franchot has at least nine fundraisers scheduled in the month of June alone. That may once have been seen as getting an early start on the general election, but he might need all the money he raises in June for a primary push.
- Ten weeks ago, former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker’s campaign was touting an internal poll that showed him in a very competitive position. The Sun/UB poll found that he is the choice of just 7% of Democrats surveyed, suggesting he is a second-tier candidate. Baker has campaigned as aggressively as any candidate in the race in recent weeks, but his focus has been almost entirely on Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. That strategy does not appear to be paying dividends, and his standing in the survey could make his already precarious fundraising situation worse. Even though he’s one of the best-known Democrats in the field, and well-liked and well-respected among party insiders, his campaign may be out of gas.
- Despite his constant insistence on the campaign trail that he’s the most electable Democrat in the fall, former Attorney General Doug Gansler is in an even more precarious position than Baker, clocking in at just 4% of the vote in the survey. Like Baker, who was the runner-up in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor with 29%, Gansler was the runner-up in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor with 24%. It’s been clear for a while that Gansler is going to finish well out of the money in this year’s primary; the Sun/UB poll merely confirms it.
- If earlier polls are to be believed, Moore has shown the greatest movement of all the candidates since he entered the race last year, and with all the money he’s prepared to spend in the weeks ahead, it’s clear that he’s a serious contender and perhaps best-equipped to out-perform Franchot. But considering all the money he’s spent already, considering the air of celebrity surrounding his campaign and the “wow” factor that accompanies many of his public appearances, should he be doing better? He’s bringing in Oprah next week, virtually, who is almost universally beloved and a political force of her own. That will certainly up the “wow” factor.
- Although he appears to be running third, Perez voters were more “firm” in their support than were Franchot’s or Moore’s supporters, according to the poll. That suggests the former Montgomery County councilmember and former state and U.S. labor secretary could have room to grow. The labor unions that are backing him represent a formidable base, and he’s just beginning to unleash his campaign spending on TV ads. He’s generally well-known and well-liked among prime Democratic voters, and that will help in the primary. Monday’s televised debate, with its demand for 60-second answers, will be a good test of whether he’s able to offer quick, digestible responses when he has a tendency to lapse into Beltway-speak or try to tackle too many points in a single answer.
- The John King for Governor campaign has been working to convince the public that the former Obama administration education secretary is surging. But while in the view of many political professionals he has run a focused campaign with a consistent progressive message and an emphasis on building grass-roots support, and while he wasn’t widely known when he started campaigning, the Sun/UB poll suggests that he has yet to catch fire. He attracted support from 4% of those polled.
- Although two polls paid for this year by the Democratic Governors Association — which makes no secret of its preference to face Cox in the general election rather than Schulz — showed Cox leading in the GOP primary, the Sun/UB poll puts Schulz in front. That will undoubtedly enable her supporters, including Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), to breathe a little easier, for now. But this race ain’t over, and even in the Sun poll Schulz’s lead is narrow. She is leading a Q-Anon sympathizer by just 6 points, just outside the margin of error. And 42% of likely GOP voters don’t know who they plan to vote for next month. The Sun/UB poll underscores how fluid the Republican race is.
The televised Democratic debate Monday, followed by the campaign finance reports due to be filed on June 14, will be the next big benchmarks in the gubernatorial race.
But expect more twists and turns — and multiple surprises — in the weeks ahead.