David Nitkin on issues in Md. election

Bob, San Francisco: What are some of the local issues that might help Maryland citizens decide who they want to be president? Also, I assume that Maryland is probably going to go Democratic, but can you tell me why?

Nitkin: Our polling showed that Marylanders seem to be relying on national issues, not local ones, in deciding whom to support for president. Voters ranked the Iraq war and leadership issues as their top concerns; jobs and the economy and terrorism were also important issues. As for local issues, many Marylanders either work for the federal government, for government contractors, or in industries that rely on the government for funding. These voters may vote their "pocketbooks," deciding which candidate is better for their livelihood.

In Maryland, the voter registration is 2-1 Democratic to Republican, so Democrats usually win in presidential races. Republican wins are not unheard of: Ronald Reagan carried the state in 1984, however, as did George H.W. Bush in 1988. In addition, Maryland has the largest African-American population outside the Deep South -- about 28 percent. Black voters tend to be Democrats, but of course are not monolithic in their voting decisions.

John Stevens, Taneytown: Do most people you talk to think [Comptroller] William Donald Schaefer should retire?

Nitkin: As a political reporter, I'm sure I don't talk to a representative sample of Marylanders, but hopefully our pollster did! We found that 54 percent of registered voters said Schaefer should continue to do his job as comptroller; 36 percent said he should step down, and 10 percent were not sure. However, 59 percent of voters agreed with the statement "He was a good public official but his day has passed." As a whole, I think many Marylanders are shocked by some of Schaefer's statements on AIDS and immigrants, but at the same time realize that he is speaking from the heart -- not from a playbook, and appreciate both his frankness and his continuing legacy as a public servant.

Lorenzo, Baltimore: Can someone so entrenched like Sen. Barbara Mikulski really be beaten here in Maryland?

Nitkin: Well, Lorenzo, entrenched is certainly a loaded word, and one that I would avoid. But our polling showed that Mikulski remains one of, if not the most popular politicians in Maryland. Sixty-four percent of registered voters said they had a favorable impression of her, compared with 28 percent unfavorable -- for a net 36-point favorability rating that was the highest of any politician we surveyed. By comparison, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s net was 24 points, and Mayor Martin O'Malley's was 29 points.

Mikulski is widely regarded as a fighter for Maryland's interests, and is good at constituent service. So, bottom line: she won't be beaten in Maryland this year.

Ron, Pikesville: Why is your paper so liberal and biased against Republicans? Your paper reports what it wants -- how come never the complete truth?

Nitkin: Ron, when people say "the paper" is biased, I hope they make the distinction -- which is crucial to us and all other legitimate papers -- between the editorial board, its writers and opinions and the news report that appears on all other pages. Reporters and editors are interested in reporting the news, be it good, bad or ugly. To be sure, more often than not, stories regarded as "bad news" -- crimes, fires, indictments, plane crashes -- get more play and attention than "good news." But that's more a function of limited reporting resources and column inches on our pages than a desire to promote the bad over the good.

One of the most important functions that reporters serve at the paper is shining a spotlight on government -- city, county, state and federal -- and asking tough questions about whether office-holders and public servants are doing their jobs properly. We strive to ask those questions regardless of party affiliation.

Reporters and editors are always willing to listen to concerns about whether facts were omitted from stories, and may even have a good explanation if they were!

Amanda, Delmar: Who would vote for [presidential candidate Sen. John] Kerry when he voted against the Laci Peterson law?

Nitkin: Amanda, I'm not familiar with the Laci Peterson law, but senators cast hundreds of votes a year on a variety of issues. Individual votes can certainly haunt them, or be used against them. Legislating is the art of compromising. Perhaps that's one reason that a U.S. senator has not been elected president since John Kennedy in 1960.

James E. Merna, Lanham: Why doesn't the state and counties have demonstrations of the new electronic voting machines at public places such as libraries, etc? I have a brother who needs such assistance, and none is available.

Nitkin: James, I've seen many demonstrations of these machines at fairs, festivals and elsewhere. The state has spent a lot of money on an outreach effort. Some counties have mailed directions on how to use them, along with sample ballots. Perhaps you might want to contact the Prince George's County elections board, at 301-952-3270, to find out if a machine is on display somewhere. Additionally, the county elections board Web site (click here) has a live display of the machines.

Henry Harle, Glen Burnie: Does this mean you are endorsing Kerry? (Like I really needed to ask.)

Nitkin: Henry, I haven't seen our paper's endorsement yet, and am not involved in that decision. To be sure, I won't be surprised if the editorial page editors decide to endorse Kerry.

John Melville, Baltimore: With the increase in requests for absentee ballots this year, what are the chances that some of those who requested them by the deadline won't receive them by Election Day?

Nitkin: John, according to stories we and other media outlets have published, there seems to be a pretty good chance of that, which is troubling. It looks as if the 2004 election could be just as close as 2000, so the status of those ballots and others in key states (probably not Maryland) could be the subject of intense legal challenges.

John Soscia, Ellicott City: Do you really think a presidential candidate that went to France while a lieutenant in the U.S. military in order to undermine U.S. efforts in Vietnam is capable of performing the duties of commander in chief?

Nitkin: John, for most presidents, performing the duties of commander in chief seem to be learned on the job. Not since Eisenhower have we elected a career military officer to be president. Our last two commanders-in-chief have been governors of Texas and Arkansas, hardly the type of training to perform the important duties of a civilian commander. But we want our president to be able to hire the right people as defense secretary and national security adviser to assist in those decisions.

Anonymous, Annapolis: I noticed that The Sun polls did not ask voters to rank their feelings on environmental issues. How much of a role do you think the environment plays -- or will continue to play -- in Maryland elections?

Nitkin: While the fragile Chesapeake Bay defines the state and the region, most voters do not put environmental concerns at the top of their list. Locally, education, the economy, crime and traffic are typically more important. There will never be a candidate for statewide office who says the environment is not important, so it is difficult for voters to distinguish between the records and positions of candidates on the environment.

Venable Scott, Owings Mills: My wife registered to vote, but has yet to receive her voter's card. What can I do?

Nitkin: You can contact the Baltimore County elections board at 410-887-5700 to check the records and find your precinct location. If your wife's name is not on the voter rolls when you get there on Election Day and she believes there is an error, she can vote by provisional ballot, which should be counted.

Bill Young, Lineboro: It's funny that The Baltimore Sun -- which is so Democratic from the start it's amazing President Bush even gets publicity -- thinks the entire state of Maryland is behind John Kerry, when in fact it is simply Baltimore City that is always strongly Democratic. Check around in most of the counties and you will find the support for G.W. Bush is unwavering. Do you think if The Baltimore Sun were not so liberal that maybe the support for George Bush would show stronger than ya'll allow it to?

Nitkin: Bill, our poll that found Kerry leading Bush 56-39 percent was based on a sample of 602 registered voters from across the state. Ten percent were from Baltimore, 36 percent were from suburban Baltimore, 32 percent were from suburban Washington and 22 percent were from the Eastern Shore and southern and western counties. I hope you'll agree that we checked around.

Francine, Perryville: On Friday, The Sun reported that Maryland will go for John Kerry by a great margin. Isn't it true that 90 percent of these Kerry votes will come out of Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, and will actually be cast largely by African-American and Hispanic voters? Is it fair to assume that Bush will actually win 19 out of 23 Maryland counties?

Nitkin: Francine, you raise a good point: Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery are often referred to as the "Big Three" jurisdictions for Democratic candidates. It's very possible that Kerry might win in just those places, and nowhere else, as you point out. But remember: Prince George's and Montgomery are the two largest jurisdictions by population in the state, and Baltimore is the largest city. These places are where nearly half of the state's population live. So even if Bush wins 19 of 23 counties, as you state, the statistic is of dubious value.

Gene Ewachiw, Lutherville: If George Bush is leading the country in the wrong direction, just what direction would John Kerry take us? Be specific: so far, he hasn't.

Nitkin: Gene, it's up to Kerry -- not us -- to articulate a vision of where he would lead the country as president. If you are saying he hasn't led so far, he hasn't been in a position to. If you are saying he hasn't been specific in saying where he would lead, than that is a failing of his campaign and its message.

Gene Ewachiw, Lutherville: Did E.J. Pipkin break the law when he was dealing in junk bonds? Barbara Mikulski certainly gives that impression.

Nitkin: OK, Gene, you get a second question! We know of no illegality in Pipkin's Wall Street career. Mikulski certainly makes junk bonds sound like a dirty word, and has even tried to link Pipkin to Enron. But so-called junk bonds are high-risk instruments used for corporate financing, and are a legitimate tool to raise money in the business world.

McCullough, Maryland: I am a registered voter but I don't have a voter's card. How do I go about getting a card?

Nitkin: Again, contact your local elections board to find your polling place. If for some reason your name is not on the rolls there, ask for a provisional ballot.

Dave Dimock, Lutherville: A poll taken of likely voters in Maryland indicates that The Sun is an extremely and consistently politically biased (for the Democratic Party) newspaper. Will The Sun ever discuss its political bias in a televised public forum?

Nitkin: Dave, I get the joke. See my answers above about political bias and the difference between editorial board decisions on the op-ed page and the news report. I think editors of The Sun are occasionally willing to appear in a variety of settings to discuss how the paper makes its news decisions. If you know of a television station that wishes to host such a forum, let us know. I'm not sure how high the ratings would be for that broadcast!

Delores Liely, Baltimore: What did those surveyed mean by "headed in the wrong direction?" Spiritually? Financially?

Nitkin: Delores, we asked this question: "Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?" It's up to respondents to answer, and we don't know if they mean spiritually, financially, etc. But this a very standard polling question to gauge the mood of the electorate.

Angel Murrill, Owings Mills: How can you be so sure with these polls? There is no way you can tell because you can only have 2-3 percent margin of error.

Nitkin: Angel, polling is an inexact science. What we say is that we have contacted a large enough sample size of registered voters (602 of them, reached by telephone) to say that 95 times out of 100, the true result (that is, the answer if we asked EVERY registered voter their opinion) would be either four percentage points higher or lower than the result we got for any particular question.

But that's a big spread. Our poll showed Kerry leading Bush 56-39 percent among registered voters. But it may well be that Kerry is up 60 percent to 35 percent. Or it could be that he is really up 52 percent to 43 percent.

In close races, this so-called margin of error makes all the difference. Politicians like to say that the only poll that matters is the one that's done on Election Day -- in the voting booth.

Rachel C., Towson: I am constantly reading about polls that represent not only my country, but my state and my county. However, I don't know a single person who has actually been polled. How am I supposed to trust the statistics that are reported to me?

Nitkin: Rachel, see my answer above. In a sample size of 600 registered voters, and 36 percent of those in the Baltimore suburbs, the chances of you knowing anyone who was reached in this poll are exceedingly small. There are error rates in all polls: the larger the sample size, the smaller the chance of error becomes. But also, for us, the cost of polling increases. So we try to strike a balance. A sample size of 600 registered voters is considered statistically valid.

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