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Fewer TV ads, microtargeting: crowded race for Maryland governor candidates yields unusual strategies to win

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

With the conclusion of the 2018 General Assembly session, Maryland’s race for governor is about to kick into a higher gear, and political analysts say Democratic voters can expect a contest unlike any in state history.

The competitive seven-person race to claim Maryland’s Democratic nomination in June has created an unusual dynamic and a peculiar goal for many candidates: winning the race is likely to require not the majority of votes, but as little as 25 percent.

The Democratic primary race for governor is so crowded that the most popular candidate will need an unusually small number of votes to win — as few as 125,000, some analysts predict, less than it takes to win some county executive seats.

That low threshold in a state of 2 million Democratic voters has inspired some candidates to unconventional strategies.

Campaigns say they are microtargeting voters — focusing resources on specific regions or particular constituencies, to the exclusion of a broader statewide strategy. Most are unlikely to buy much costly broadcast television advertising. Primary voters are more likely to see candidates showing up on their doorsteps, directed there by data that predicts in advance how they might vote.

“The campaigns and the independent expenditures that are able to chop up voters and microtarget them are the ones with the best chance of getting through,” political strategist Raymond Glendening said. His Maryland First super PAC is backing Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker in the Democratic primary.

Just over 485,000 Democrats voted in Maryland’s 2014 gubernatorial primary. Most campaigns acknowledged to The Baltimore Sun that they’ve sketched out plans designed to win with no more than 35 percent of this year’s vote.

“People ask me all the time, and I think it could be as little as 25 percent. It really could be,” said former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, who has co-authored a book on the Democrats’ domination of the state’s politics.

“We’ve had multiple candidates before. We’ve never had so many candidates with capacity to win.”

The seven major candidates who have filed to run in the Democratic primary on June 26 are Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, author Alec Ross, lawyer Jim Shea and Krish Vignarajah, a former aide to Michelle Obama.

The winner will face Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, one of the most popular governors in the country. Hogan does not have a challenger in the GOP primary.

Hogan has joked on several occasions that less than 10 percent of people strongly disapprove of the job he’s doing, and “it seems like all of them are running against me.”

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor “isn’t paying attention to the Democratic primary.”

“The governor is going to keep doing what he’s been doing,” Chasse said: talking to people across the state about his record.

Willis, an executive in residence at the University of Baltimore who is regarded as a sage adviser to Maryland Democrats, said his research shows primary races with four or more credible candidates can be captured with as little as 30 percent of the vote — as it was in 1966.

He expects the threshold in 2018 to be a record low. He said Willis said different candidates are likely to do well in different regions, fragmenting the electorate in unpredictable ways as candidates try to cobble together enough votes to win and creating unusual strategies.

“It’s almost like, ‘Hey, if I can come in second everywhere, I win,’ ” he said.

The crowded Democratic race has forced candidates to segment voters in part because they’ve raised much less money than Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates in years past.

Four years ago, Democrats spent nearly $21.5 million on the primary battle, $11.2 million of it by then-Lt. Gov Anthony Brown and $7.5 million by then-Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. By the second week of April 2014, the candidates had introduced themselves in television spots and were airing their first attack ads.

None of the seven candidates running this year has yet aired a broadcast television ad, the most effective way to reach a broad swath of voters. At the last campaign finance report deadline, in January, the candidate with the most money was Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who had $2 million available to spend. Television ads in the Washington suburbs — home to more than 40 percent of the state’s Democrats — can cost as much as $600,000 a week.

“Candidates will absolutely — not because they want to, but because they have to in order to win — cater their messages to small constituencies,” said Democratic strategist Justin Schall, Brown’s campaign manager in 2014.

“None of them have enough money to talk to all the voters, so these guys have to make some hard decisions, and there’s no clear right answer,” he said. “They have to pick some segment of the population and target them.”

Some candidates are more candid than others about their plans to do just that.

Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP head, has targeted progressive voters, civil rights groups and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid.

“It’s microtargeting, it’s building a coalition, and it’s holding that coalition together,” Jealous campaign spokesman Kevin Harris said.

“The only way you can win with a field this crowded is you have to build a solid coalition,” Harris said. “We’ve gone after endorsements that either bring money or bring people who can help go out and reach voters.”

Among those groups is CASA de Maryland, the immigrants rights group. The charity’s affiliated — though legally separate — political-advocacy arm, CASA in Action, endorsed Jealous.

“The Latino vote is only expected to be three to five percent,” Harris said. “But in a field of seven people, three to five percent is a lot.”

State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, who is relying on public financing, has invested in micro-messaging software that predicts which specific issue an individual primary voter cares about most. When Madaleno volunteers knock on a voter’s door, they know whether to make their message about affordable child care, education or potholes, making each interaction a custom-designed conversation more likely to secure a vote.

Madaleno’s campaign manager says the Montgomery County lawmaker expects to do well in his home jurisdiction, and then identify enough voters across the state to push him over the threshold to win.

The plan is “locking down our base, and then picking up percentages,” Keith Presley said. “Basically, nickel-and-diming across the state to get to victory.”

Since a winner could emerge with as few as 125,000 votes statewide, the Madaleno camp sees the possibility that an efficient grassroots operation could get that many supporters to the polls.

“We can target and could build from the ground up,” Presley said.

The Maryland Democratic Party, meanwhile, is going out of its way to avoid the perception it is helping one candidate over another. That means the party is not doing a statewide voter turnout drive, since it could be perceived as bringing out supporters who favor a particular candidate.

“We’re being incredibly judicious about that,” party chair Kathleen Matthews said. “There’s a perception that the establishment put its thumb on the scale. Whether or not that’s true, it’s out there.”

She expects a natural surge in primary turnout fueled by Democratic voters upset by President Donald J. Trump and policies pushed by the Republican-controlled Congress. But it’s hard to predict which candidates those voters might support, especially with so many candidates on the ballot.

Matthews said the party is focused on boosting turnout in the General Election instead.

So far, public polling shows that as much as 40 percent of Democratic voters are undecided in the primary.

Some of the candidates who have been polling near the bottom of the pack view the number of undecided voters as an unprecedented opportunity.

The campaign of Alec Ross, an author and tech entrepreneur from Baltimore, said the size of the field helps mitigate traditional obstacles for first-time candidates: You can win without getting the most endorsements or the most support from party activists.

“A crowded race is a good thing for us,” Ross campaign spokesman Daniel Ensign said. “Races aren’t going to be won by who gets the most central committee endorsements or goes to the most dinners.”

Jim Shea, a lawyer from Baltimore, is trying to make personal connections with as many voters across the state as possible to reach what the campaign believes will be the 25 to 30 percent needed to win.

“It’s possible it’s below 25 percent,” Shea campaign manager Brian Doory said. “We’re making sure that every jurisdiction in the state matters, every vote matters … We’re doing as many things as we can in person.”

Baker has led the field in recent polls. His campaign says the crowded race has had no bearing on how he runs.

“Every candidate has their own strategy,” Baker campaign spokeswoman Madeleine Russak said. “Rushern Baker’s message is that he wants to build Maryland up for the entire state.”

The Kamenetz campaign says it’s not targeting parts of the electorate.

“We’re seeing the Democratic party has a deep bench,” Kamenetz campaign spokesman Sean Naron said. “Every community, every county and every vote counts.”

Krish Vignarajah, the only woman in the field, expects to connect with women, people of color, immigrants and young voters across the state. She is banking on increased turnout among those voters to help carry her to victory.

Vignarajah has raised the least money so far.

“A crowded primary gives candidates outside the establishment a shot, regardless of their resources,” Vignarajah spokeswoman Elizabeth Waickman said. “Especially in a year like this, when primary voters are looking for something different.”

ecox@baltsun.com

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