By KAREN ANDERSON
ANNAPOLIS (Nov. 7, 2009) - Independent voters could be Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's biggest weakness in his 2010 reelection campaign, according to a new poll by the Clarus Research Group.
O'Malley lost the independent vote by 14 percentage points to former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in a hypothetical matchup, according to the poll, which comes on the heels of Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey this week.
"I think if there's one thing that Tuesday showed Democrats, it's that they need to be competitive among independents," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, regarding the governors' races. "Independents truly powered the Republican victories on Tuesday."
Still, O'Malley beat Ehrlich 47 to 40 percent in the trial heat conducted by the Clarus poll, a win that speaks to the strong statewide advantage Maryland Democrats have among registered voters. Almost 57 percent of the state's registered voters are Democrats, versus 27 percent Republicans.
The Clarus poll sampled 637 voters statewide in Maryland between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Given the Democratic advantage, independents are a crucial voting bloc for Republicans seeking statewide office, and in turn a critical one for Democrats as well.
Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus Research Group, said O'Malley does not have to beat his Republican challenger among independents, but he can't disregard them.
"He needs to be competitive among independents and that's the way to cut a Republican out," Faucheux said. "And at this stage of the game, he's not as competitive there as he needs to be."
In fact, Eberly said these numbers coupled with Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia, may be a sign that next year's election represents Ehrlich's best chance to regain the governor's seat.
"I would see no reason why Ehrlich wouldn't view this as probably the best opportunity he would ever have to reclaim the governor's office," Eberly said. "He probably wouldn't have a better year to mount a challenge to an incumbent Democrat, and I suspect he knows that."
Ehrlich, still undecided about whether or not to challenge O'Malley next fall, said Tuesday's elections would signify the political mood of moderate America to say, "We don't like the way this is all going, we don't like the multi-generational debt and we don't like the health care bill."
Despite O'Malley's partisan advantage, his job approval rating is hovering just below 50 percent, a number consistent with the job approval rating he received for January and September of 2009 in a statewide poll done by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
Voters are largely dissatisfied with his handling of major economic issues, according to the poll.
Only 39 percent approve of his managing of the state budget and 33 percent approve of his ability to bring new jobs to Maryland.
"He will certainly have to step up," Eberly said of O'Malley. "The indications from Tuesday are that this will probably be a tough year not only for Democrats but for incumbents in general, and he's got to define why the voters would want to keep him in office, why they would want to reelect him."
Fifty-four percent approved of O'Malley's ability to live up to a high standard of ethics, though this was the only one of the 11 issues included in the poll where he earned an approval rating of over 50 percent.
"Budget problems in any state government, in fairness to both parties, is always a tough, messy thing to deal with," said Faucheux. "The people in power who have to deal with these issues can easily get sucked into the state budget swamp and it's not an easy thing to get out of."
O'Malley is increasing communication as one strategy to get out of the "budget swamp."
On Thursday he delivered his first in a series of Maryland Economic Updates, which seek to keep Marylanders in tune with the status of the state's economy.
Eberly is confident Ehrlich has a shot at defeating O'Malley next November, particularly if he focuses his campaign efforts on Howard and Baltimore counties, key areas in the last two gubernatorial races.
"If he can bolster himself, that 47 to 40 percent can be overcome," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.