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Maryland voters focused on economy

Maryland has endured a bruising recession better than many other states, but voters here are still wary over the economy and personal finances, and could punish incumbent politicians at the ballot box next month, a Baltimore Sun survey shows.

The Sun survey of 798 likely Maryland voters showed that nearly two-thirds worry about their finances — and one in four say they fret about money every day. More than half of voters say the performance of the economy will influence their voting decisions.

"In 2010, people are much more likely to vote their pocketbook, and once again it really is about the economy, stupid," said Anirban Basu, an economist with the Sage Policy Group.

Many voters said they plan to vent their economic frustrations at the polls. More than four in 10 Marylanders who say they will vote on Nov. 2 say they will select "new people" for state and local offices, compared with about a third who said they plan to re-elect incumbents.

Steve Jordan, 60, who lives in Manchester in Carroll County, said he's voting Republican this year because he wants to see a change in the economy.

Jordan, a U.S. Postal Service retiree, now works at Lowe's full-time to pay for the second mortgage on his house, which he took out to help pay for his two children's college education.

"If things continue to get worse and Lowe's isn't making money, they're going to let people go," Jordan said. "And why would they keep a 60-year-old when they could keep 24- or 25-year-olds?"

But views of the economy differ with political affiliation, according to Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, which conducted The Sun's poll.

Three in 10 Democrats surveyed said the economy is getting better, and the same proportion said it was getting worse. But among Republicans, just 4 percent said things were improving, while 66 percent said economic conditions were declining.

"Republicans are so agitated that they're seeing the economy through this partisan lens," said Raabe. "It's sending these numbers off the charts."

With Democrats in control in the White House, Congress, and nearly all federal, state and local offices in Maryland, "Republicans are feeling very frustrated and want to strike back and assert some political voice," Raabe said.

Lucille Mavronis of Southwest Baltimore is a Democrat who said she'll likely vote Republican in this election because she's worried about her personal finances "all the time."

The 63-year-old former telephone service representative lives off disability insurance, which she says hasn't kept pace with the cost of living and rising prescription drug costs in recent years.

"It's getting awful," Mavronis said. "I don't know what to do anymore."

But Democrats running for re-election in Maryland — such as Gov. Martin O'Malley and several county executives and county council members — can find some comfort in the poll numbers. Forty-six percent of poll respondents said they planned to vote for Democrats for state and local office, while three in 10 said they would vote for Republicans.

The emphasis on the economy in this year's political races is a turnaround from four years ago. Then, an unpopular President George W. Bush was in power, but unemployment was low and the economy was relatively healthy. O'Malley beat Republican incumbent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the governor's race after linking him with Bush's policies and the wars abroad.

As of September, the national unemployment rate stands at 9.6 percent, more than double the rate four years ago, while Maryland's rate was 7.5 percent. Voters continue to deal with job losses and workplace uncertainty, stagnant wages, depressed home values, shell-shocked 401(k) savings accounts, and high personal debt.

Maryland voters mirror the national trend of concern over the economy and jobs. An August survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that nine out of 10 voters cited the economy as a dominant issue, and almost the same number were concerned about jobs.

O'Malley has worked to position the state as one of the few bright spots in a country bedeviled by the recession and unemployment.

"The governor understands that people are anxious in our state and nationally because of the national economy — which is why it's more important than ever that we protect our priorities and continue to create jobs in our state," said Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for the O'Malley campaign. "In Maryland, we've created more than 36,000 jobs since January — triple the rate of the national average."

His challenger, Ehrlich, has sought to undercut O'Malley's record on the state economy, unemployment and job creation. The Ehrlich campaign highlighted that the unemployment rate in Maryland increased last month for the second month in a row, and that more than 200,000 residents are looking for work.

"Our unemployment rate is bad and getting worse," Ehrlich said in a statement. "There is a fundamental difference between me and Martin O'Malley over how to create private sector jobs for Marylanders."

According to The Sun poll, only about 20 percent of voters believe the economy is getting better, while 44 percent believe it's getting worse.

Nationally, several indicators paint a mixed picture of an economy growing in fits and starts, but still struggling with recovery. Economists worry that some signs show the economy is improving — with recent gains in consumer spending, business investment and exports — but not fast enough to generate significant job growth.

Last month, new-home sales remained nearly 30 percent below last year's level, according to federal statistics. Retail and food sales increased less than 1 percent, while car sales climbed nearly 20 percent, compared with year-ago figures — signaling that consumers might be watching their day-to-day spending, but are prepared to spend on big-ticket items.

Eva West of Southeast Baltimore is watching her budget closely. She has concerns over meeting rising expenses on a fixed income of about $500 a month.

But the 66-year-old woman is a lifelong Democrat, and plans to stick with her party when she votes next month.

"It don't pay to jump from one bridge to another bridge all the time," she said.

The weak economy has stoked worries at all levels of society, from the well-to-do in Montgomery County to those living on fixed incomes in Baltimore, according to Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park. The affluent might be concerned about how much of an inheritance they'll be able to leave their children, while those less fortunate are worried about affording the rent, prescription drugs and healthy food, he said.

Herrnson said that economic concerns this year are widespread as the country lurches out of recession.

"Most Americans of 40 [years] and older were raised during a period when America was on the rise," Herrnson said. "And now it seems the American dream is more distant for most people, particularly those in the middle class and those we'd describe as working class."

Robert Nusbaum, an Owings Mills resident who is semiretired, said voters need to realize that there's no "magic bullet" that's going to cure economic ills. The 60-year-old Democrat said that two years ago, the country was "on the precipice of a depression."

While he's concerned about the economy, he's more cautious about what he thinks it's going to take to improve its health.

"I'm a lot more measured," Nusbaum said. "I don't think there's going to be a political fix to what's going on right now. There are too many variables that have to be addressed before things get turned around."

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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More poll results

The Baltimore Sun will publish poll results for the Maryland governor's race in Sunday's editions, followed by results for the 1st District congressional race and Question A, the slots zoning referendum in Anne Arundel County.

Sun poll methodology

The Baltimore Sun telephone survey of 798 likely voters was conducted Oct. 15-20. The Sun's pollster, OpinionWorks of Annapolis, used a Maryland Board of Elections database to identify registered voters with a history of voting in gubernatorial elections or who had registered to vote since the last election, and obtained survey results from those who ranked themselves seven or higher on 1 to 10 scale of their likelihood to vote. The Sun's sample was designed to approximate the racial, gender, geographic, partisan and age breakdown of the state's voting population as a whole, based on turnout patterns averaged over the past four Maryland general elections. Results were weighted to reflect a higher-than-average Republican turnout this year, and slightly lower African-American participation than in recent elections. The margin of error for questions that reflect the entire sample is 3.5 percentage points, which means that in 95 times out of 100, the actual answer obtained by surveying every Maryland voter would be within 3.5 percentage points of the answer obtained by using the sample. The margin of error is higher for sub-groups of respondents.

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