Forty-two percent of likely voters said they intend to support Delaney, a Potomac financier making his first run for political office. Bartlett, a 20-year incumbent who lives in Buckeystown, was the choice of 41 percent of likely voters surveyed. One in 10 respondents said they are undecided and 6 percent refused to say whom they will support. The result is a statistical tie.
The telephone survey of 610 likely 6th district voters — the first independent poll in the closely watched race — was conducted Oct. 20 to Oct. 25.
The newly redrawn district was designed for Democrats, but the poll shows that the state's marquee congressional race is much closer than previously anticipated. Nonpartisan political analysts have considered Bartlett among the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation, and his own party has been slow to invest in his bid for an 11th term.
The stakes are high for both the candidates as well as the state's political parties. Democrats in Annapolis redrew the 6th last year to deliver a seventh member of their party to the House of Representatives — and they are increasingly under fire for what many voters view as a gerrymandered map.
Republicans, meanwhile, face the prospect of losing one of their few strongholds, Western Maryland, to a Democrat.
Both candidates have locked up their respective core voters, but Delaney appears to have additional momentum heading into the Nov. 6 election. Among those voters who have made up their mind in the past week, about two-thirds chose Delaney. And Bartlett is not performing as well in the district as GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who has support from 45 percent of voters compared with 42 percent for President Barack Obama.
Still, the head-to-head number puts the race much closer than many predicted. Independent political observers have for months listed the district as one of the most likely in the nation to flip.
"Let's hope that it's a reliable poll," Bartlett quipped when asked Sunday about the status of the race. Asked if it corresponds with his campaign's own polling, Bartlett said: "We've had a number of polls. They're up and down."
"Voters have a real choice," Delaney said Sunday. "Do they want someone with job-creating experience or do they want to go with someone who's a member of the tea party and has proven they're unable to get things done?"
Despite aggressive fundraising over the summer, Bartlett has had less money than Delaney to spend on television and radio advertisements — a critically important factor since both candidates are introducing themselves to about 300,000 new Montgomery County voters who are part of the 6th for the first time. Delaney outraised Bartlett six-to-one in the first half of October.
That does not include the nearly $2 million of his own money Delaney has invested in the race.
Very little outside cash has poured into the race, an indication that third-party political groups have not seen the district as particularly competitive to date. The campaign arm of the House Republicans, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has spent more than $6 million on advertising in about two dozen districts over the past week. None of it has been used to defend Bartlett.
The new 6th includes Maryland's western panhandle along with the city of Frederick and portions of Montgomery County, which is heavily Democratic.
Polls conducted by the Delaney campaign show the Democrat ahead by double digits, aides said. The difference appears to come down to assumptions about turnout — and that will be driven largely by the presidential election. While Delaney and Bartlett have aired most of their advertising on cable television, both presidential campaigns have been pummeling the more expensive Washington broadcast media market.
Bartlett and Delaney have presented sharply different visions on how to address the economy and federal budget deficits. Bartlett, 86, wants to reduce corporate taxes and regulations. The former scientist opposes abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens. Delaney, who is 49, favors a mix of spending cuts and new taxes to balance the budget. He supports gay marriage and creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.
The contrast appears to be helping Delaney with younger voters and Bartlett with seniors. Delaney enjoys a 10 percentage-point advantage with voters under 35 while Bartlett is ahead 12 points among voters over 65. Bartlett is winning among men by seven percentage points and Delaney is winning with women by nine points. Independent voters are split evenly between the candidates.
Delaney is ahead by 22 percentage points in Montgomery County, though Bartlett wins the portions of Frederick County included in the district as well as Western Maryland.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The telephone survey of 610 likely voters was conducted by OpinionWorks, an Annapolis-based polling firm, from Oct. 20 to Oct. 25. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.