As the Nov. 6 election nears, likely Maryland voters are evenly divided on whether to make same-sex marriage legal in the state after opposition has grown in recent weeks, according to a new opinion poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun.
Meanwhile, most voters are against Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to expand gambling in Maryland, the poll found. Voters oppose the measure 54 percent to 39 percent — figures that are virtually unchanged over the past month despite a multimillion-dollar barrage of television ads seeking to sway public opinion.
The two fiercely contested ballot issues have added suspense to an election in which the outcome of most Maryland congressional races and the state's presidential vote haven't been in question.
"It comes down to turnout," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, which conducted the telephone survey of 801 likely voters. He noted that the poll, conducted Oct. 20 to Oct. 23, found that the same-sex marriage measure and the gambling plan face strong opposition from older voters and weekly churchgoers — groups that reliably turn out to vote.
"It's very important who comes to the polls," he said, "and it's very important who goes down the ballot" to cast a vote on the two measures — the last of seven statewide referendum questions.
Maryland voters are evenly divided on the Dream Act, the law that would give some illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates, with 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
And likely voters are also split on whether to approve the new congressional district map drawn by O'Malley and the majority Democrats in Annapolis, with 36 percent in favor, 33 percent opposed and 29 percent undecided.
A month ago, the same-sex marriage question was ahead by 10 percentage points — 49 percent to 39 percent — in an earlier Sun poll. The contest is now a dead heat in part because some African-Americans who supported the measure or were undecided are now saying no.
The numbers have moved amid television and radio commercials from the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposes same-sex marriage, and stepped-up efforts by pastors preaching against Question 6.
Much of the advertising is focused on African-American voters, a bloc that traditionally opposed same-sex marriage but had been warming to the idea. In late September, the Sun poll showed a majority of blacks in favor of Question 6 — evidently a high-water mark.
This time, the poll found 50 percent of black voters oppose the measure and 42 percent support it.
Yvonne Johnson, 65, of Prince George's County is among those who have decided to vote against legalization of same-sex marriage. "I'm not against gay people, she said. "I just don't think they should change what is in the Bible."
Growing opposition to the measure is not surprising, based on the experience in other states. Same-sex marriage measures have been defeated in all 32 states in which they have been on the ballot. In addition to Maryland, Maine and Washington state will also vote on legalization this fall. Minnesota has a ballot measure that would constitutionally ban same-sex marriage.
In Maryland as in other states, opponents of same-sex marriage have raised less money than supporters. Opponents say they are accustomed to being outspent during these campaigns and thus typically unleash their advertising push in the final weeks.
The new Sun poll found that 70 percent of the respondents who attend a religious service once a week are against Question 6.
"I'm a Catholic," said Laura Long, a 46-year-old Annapolitan who says she will vote no. "There are going to be some things not everybody can do," she said, saying marriage is one of them. "Leave it as religious sacrament."
But Charles McDougle, a 61-year-old black man from Temple Hills, said he sees same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue. "I'm not a theologian," he said. "I'm not trying to get into all the inner workings of the Bible on this marriage question."
A bright spot for supporters is that a slight majority of likely female voters — 51 percent — support same-sex marriage, the poll found.
June Stouffer, 64, of Washington County said the key to her decision to vote yes on Question 6 is "the fact that religious personnel are not required to marry people if it is against their beliefs."
Younger voters — those under 35 — are among the strongest supporters of the measure, the poll found. But they are also a group known for low voter turnout, Raabe noted.
The O'Malley-backed gambling expansion plan has brought Marylanders of different political views together — in opposition. Likely Democratic voters say they oppose the measure by a narrow margin, while independents and Republicans are strongly against it. Weekly churchgoers are particularly hostile to the idea, rejecting it by 67 percent to 27 percent.
The chief antagonists in the high-stakes fight have together spent more than $65 million. MGM Resorts International and its allies have spent more than $32 million to persuade voters to approve a Prince George's County casino and allow table games such as baccarat and blackjack. Penn National Gaming, fearing that an MGM-operated casino at National Harbor would cut into its lucrative casino business at Charles Town, W.Va., has spent more than $33 million to defeat the measure.
Three-quarters of the voters surveyed said they either had not seen the ads or had not been swayed by them. Raabe cautioned that some voters who believe they haven't been persuaded by ads have nevertheless absorbed their messages.
"Some of these people are not owning up to the fact they are influenced by this," he said.
Yet with spending nearly even, neither side has moved the numbers much.
"There's so much advertising on both sides, they tend to drown each other out," Raabe said. "It's a total wash."
With Question 7 still running behind, a stalemate favors Penn National. Raabe said that company's message — that the gambling revenue promised for education would not actually go to Maryland schools — strikes a chord that resonates in focus groups he's seen.
"Voters are generally very skeptical and frustrated with public officials in terms of how officials keep their promises," he said. "The reason Penn National's advertising is successful is that they've tapped that vein in the electorate."
Kirsten Mackin, 44, a Democrat from Baltimore, has moved from undecided on the gambling question last month to leaning against it.
"I'm not against gambling. I'm not against table games, but I'm more against the way this bill was written," she said.
But Robert Nowlin Sr., 73, a Baltimore Democrat, believes strongly that expanded gambling should be approved. He knows opponents say the money would never reach the schools but says it's up to voters to be vigilant.
"I feel that it's up to us to get stronger on it and to see that the money does go where it belongs," he said.
Raabe said there are signs that proponents' most recent ads might be winning some support for the measure. Voters who decided in the past week broke in favor of gambling expansion, 55 percent to 45 percent. But he said that shift might be too little and too late.
"It's another one of those 'who knows?' questions," he said. "I think the opposition is pretty firm on this issue."
The Dream Act
The electorate overall is evenly split on the Dream Act, according to the poll, but there are sharp differences among demographic groups.
The measure receives significantly stronger support in the Washington suburbs than in the Baltimore region.
In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Question 4 is favored by a margin of 57 percent to 34 percent; in greater Baltimore, despite strong support in the city, the measure trails, with 45 percent for and 49 percent against. The Dream Act is least popular in rural parts of the state, where opponents outnumber supporters by double-digit margins. Most black voters support the law; most Republicans don't.
Rabbe said there's evidence that late deciders are breaking 2-to-1 in favor, but they might not be as committed to voting as those who made up their minds early.
Kimberly Raffensparger, 50, a white Democrat from Glyndon, said that in recent weeks she has moved from undecided to supporting the measure. What she's learned about the eligibility requirements for in-state tuition has convinced her the program would not be a giveaway to immigrants.
"It seems like they have to jump through a number of hoops. I'm beginning to lean toward it," she said. "You have to prove you've been contributing toward the system and to me that's important."
Diane Aull, 59, of Perry Hall has moved from undecided to leaning against.
"If they're illegal, I say no," said Aull, a Republican. "There are too many people here in Maryland who need help."
The state's new congressional map has been criticized by Republicans and some Democrats as flagrantly gerrymandered, while the governor and General Assembly leaders describe it as fair and point out it has withstood legal challenges.
The map is an arcane question on an already busy ballot. Though it is believed to provide an advantage for Democrats in this mostly Democratic state, Raabe believes that there could be bad news for the party leaders in Annapolis who redrew it last year.
"It is close," Raabe said. "I'd be a little nervous if I were a supporter of this map."
The telephone survey of 801 likely voters was conducted by OpinionWorks, an Annapolis-based polling firm, from Oct. 20 to Oct. 23. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.