By ABBY BROWNBACK
ANNAPOLIS (October 20, 2010)Gov. Martin O'Malley commands a 5-point lead over former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, according to a Gonzales poll released Tuesday, showing a race that political analysts say is unlikely to elicit any surprises in its final two weeks.
The results, still within the margin of error, don't appear to give O'Malley quite the edge he received in two recent polls but also don't indicate a significant shift in momentum, analysts say.
"The numbers still indicate that O'Malley's significantly ahead," said Tim Magrath, a political science professor at Frostburg State University.
In the poll of 816 registered and likely Maryland voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 47 percent said they would vote for O'Malley and 42 percent would vote for Ehrlich if the election were today. Third-party candidates would net about 4 percent of the vote, and 6 percent of voters are still undecided.
Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found O'Malley's advantage smaller than the 11-point gap identified in a recent Washington Post poll and the 8-point gap cited by Rasmussen Reports. In July, when a RealClearPolitics average of polls showed the race at its tightest, a Gonzales poll showed O'Malley leading by 3 percentage points.
Gonzales, polling during a six-day period that included both televised gubernatorial debates, weighted its sample to reflect a nationwide increase in Republican enthusiasm this year.
Discrepancies between the Gonzales and Washington Post polls reflect differences in assumptions and methodology more than a shift in voter opinion, said Laslo Boyd, a partner at Gonzales.
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said any changes in O'Malley's lead are signs of skewed representation in the polling that tends to favor Ehrlich.
African-American voters are underrepresented by 8 points, Norris said, and Republicans, 33 percent of the poll's sample size, are over-represented by 5 or 6 points. Together, he said, these point to a larger margin for O'Malley.
But there's an enthusiasm gap, said Adam Hoffman, director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University. Republicans nationwide are more energized to vote, but Hoffman doesn't believe it will be enough to offset Maryland's voter registration numbers, which favor Democrats with greater than a 2-to-1 ratio.
That advantage means O'Malley can focus almost solely on turning out his base.
"This comes down to the ground game," Magrath said. "If African-Americans don't show up, Ehrlich's going to win this election. If African-Americans do show up, O'Malley's going to win."
Almost 82 percent of African-American respondents in the Gonzales poll said they would vote for O'Malley.
African-Americans make up part of O'Malley's base, along with other voters in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where the governor leads by margins of 54 and 40 points, respectively.
"Frequently it is the case that a Democrat will win statewide in Maryland winning only three jurisdictions: Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore City," Boyd said.
Ehrlich's base can be found in western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland, and the Baltimore suburbs. While the former governor enjoys comfortable margins in the western part of the state and on the Eastern Shore, his 8-point lead in the Baltimore suburbs will not offset O'Malley's success in the Washington suburbs, the poll notes.
"Ehrlich isn't accumulating enough numbers in the places he has to win, namely the Baltimore suburbs," Hoffman said. "The election is won or lost in the Baltimore suburbs, and Ehrlich's not doing as well as he hoped."
To win, Ehrlich will need to capture more than 20 percent of the state's Democratic vote, Boyd said. According to the poll, 17 percent of Democrats said they will vote for Ehrlich.
"His base is not enough to do it," Norris said. "He has to get substantial numbers of independents and conservative Democrats. The numbers just don't suggest that that's going to happen."
Spokesmen said both campaigns will continue to address the economy and jobs, the most important issue to 55 percent of poll respondents. The economy far outpaced education, at 12 percent, and the budget deficit, at 10 percent, as voters' top concern. Combined, less than 13 percent of respondents cited taxes, transportation/roads or crime/drugs as the state's most pressing issue.
Neither said it will alter its strategy in light of new polling data.
"Considering the sample size and the ratio between the Democrats and Republicans they have voting, we feel pretty good about it," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.
Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said O'Malley's apparently shrinking lead shows Marylanders are responding to an increase in advertising for Ehrlich, made possible by a successful fundraising period.
"Two weeks is enough time to see that Bob Ehrlich is the guy who offers a better alternative and a better plan," Barth said.