Five weeks before the election, a measure to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland has seen a surge of support and is now favored by likely voters, 49 percent to 39 percent, a new Baltimore Sun poll has found.
But at this stage, most voters are opposed to the gambling expansion law, according to the poll. And the electorate is conflicted about a measure to give illegal immigrants more access to higher education, with similar percentages supporting the law and opposing it.
The outcome of all three referendums will be decided by a Maryland electorate in which the majority Democrats are expected to turn out in large numbers to support President Barack Obama. He leads Republican Mitt Romney among state voters, 57 percent to 34 percent.
A big Democratic turnout could help supporters of the gay marriage and tuition initiatives, according to pollster Steve Raabe. But the highly volatile gambling issue isn't likely to break along party lines.
"There's tremendous money being spent by both sides on political advertising, and the messages in those ads are provocative," said Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, an Annapolis-based research firm that conducted the poll. "Given that, this question could still move dramatically between now and election day."
The telephone survey of 804 likely voters was conducted Sept. 25 to 27. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
Voter turnout in Maryland is expected to be driven by the presidential election and include a high percentage of African-Americans. The poll assumes that 23 percent of state voters will be African-American, closely mirroring 2008, when blacks accounted for 25 percent of the Maryland vote.
A high black turnout was a prospect once viewed with trepidation by proponents of same-sex marriage. In March, an OpinionWorks poll found less than a third of African-Americans supported the measure.
Since then, however, there's been a dramatic shift in the attitudes of black voters, according to the new Sun poll. It found more than half of likely black voters favor legalizing same-sex marriage, compared with a quarter who are opposed.
That helps to explain the turnabout in statewide attitudes since then. In March, the OpinionWorks poll found 43 percent of likely voters opposed and only 40 percent in favor.
Raabe noted that since March, President Obama has voiced his support for the issue, and the Democratic Party included it for the first time in its platform. Other high-profile African-Americans also have been vocal in their support, including Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the national board of the NAACP.
Delores N. Jenkins, an 81-year-old African-American resident of Baltimore, said she is among those who will vote to give gays and lesbians the right to marry. "They pay taxes like anybody else," she said. "They should have the right to pick their own partners. No one should tell them who they should or shouldn't be with."
The 10-point margin of support for same-sex marriage indicates a profound shift. Same-sex marriage supporters have lost in all 32 states where the issue has been put to voters. This fall, measures to legalize gay marriage are also on the ballot in Maine and Washington state, and there's a fourth voter initiative to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.
While the poll results may be encouraging for Maryland's same-sex marriage proponents, Rabbe cautioned that it's unclear whether the support will hold once opponents launch an expected media blitz.
"We don't know how strong it is," said Raabe. He said he could envision a successful effort to bring more black voters back into the 'no' column. "For opponents, you'd want to be in the African-American community messaging hard," he said.
Raabe noted that the largest pool of undecided voters is in Baltimore City where 21 percent don't have an opinion on the issue.
Voters on both sides are equally passionate. The poll found 38 percent of respondents "strongly" support same-sex marriage, while 35 percent "strongly" believe it should be illegal. That indicates voters on both sides will be motivated to go to the polls, Raabe said.
Fervent opposition is running especially high among rural Marylanders such as Lisa Fusco, a 46-year-old Navy worker from St. Mary's County.
"A man and a woman are the only two who can reproduce and keep society going," she said. She believes altering the definition of marriage could erode the institution. "Does it mean you have the right to marry a monkey? A dog?"
The measure enjoys wide approval among Maryland Democrats: 60 percent of them support it, while only 26 percent of Republicans are in favor.
Voters under 35 support same-sex marriage 61 percent to 22 percent. They include Matthew Jablonski, a 26-year-old graphic designer from Montgomery County.
"My family and I do know some very nice men who are married, and we want to support people like them," he said.
The casino-backed committees on the two sides of the gambling debate have each spent at least $13 million to persuade Maryland voters, but The Sun poll shows that opponents may be getting more bang for their buck.
According to the poll, 53 percent of Maryland voters oppose Question 7, which would permit table games at Maryland casinos and allow a new gambling palace in Prince George's County, while 38 percent would vote yes.
Meanwhile, those against the gambling measure have opened up a huge gap in voter enthusiasm, with 43 percent of opponents saying their views are strongly held. On the other side, only 24 percent say they are strong in their support.
The results are especially challenging for gambling supporters, led by MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, because the pool of voters describing themselves as undecided is shallow, 8 percent.
Opposition to the expansion cuts across party lines — even though the measure that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot is the work of a Democratic governor and General Assembly. Republicans are rejecting the measure by 67 percent to 26 percent. But Democrats, too, are opposed, 46 percent to 44 percent. Independents and third-party supporters say they will vote no, 56 percent to 36 percent.
The Democratic rejection of the gambling measure is largely driven by negative numbers in the party stronghold of Montgomery County, where 54 percent of voters plan to vote no and only 34 percent yes.
The margin could be an indication that the proponents' arguments that the proceeds from expanded gambling would benefit education are not convincing voters. Opponents, led by Penn National Gaming, have pushed the theme that there are no guarantees that the money will remain in the schools.
Some voters support gambling philosophically but don't like the manner in which Gov. Martin O'Malley and General Assembly leaders got the measure on the ballot. They include James H. Thomas Jr., a 61-year-old UPS retiree from Dundalk, who plans to vote no.
"O'Malley handled this behind closed doors," Thomas said. "It was put off to a special session. There are tax deductions for whoever runs these gambling conglomerates. I really don't like that."
In Prince George's County, which is expected to gain an important new revenue stream if the measure passes, voters are giving Question 7 only tepid support — 52 percent yes to 42 percent no.
Raabe said that if support doesn't pick up in Prince George's, the measure is likely doomed statewide.
"They should be for it by 30 points," Raabe said. "Even Prince Georgians are pretty lukewarm about it."
The measure does have strong supporters in the county, including Myra Henderson of Hyattsville. Like a 56 percent to 32 percent majority of African-Americans, the 62-year-old retired Social Security Administration employee says she will vote yes, partly because she likes to gamble and would enjoy a casino at National Harbor — the most likely location if the voters approve.
"It would be closer to home," she said. "Why go to Atlantic City or wherever, when you could go right here?"
The modest margin of support in Prince George's is more than offset by heavy opposition in Baltimore. City voters currently oppose the measure, 57 percent to 34 percent, despite Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's support.
Of the three high-profile issues on the ballot, the Dream Act has received the least attention and voters are the most conflicted on it.
"This issue is still completely up for grabs," Raabe said. "It is getting drowned out in a presidential election year."
The law would give some illegal immigrants access to the lower, in-state tuition rates at Maryland colleges and universities. To qualify for the lower rates, the students would have to show that their parents have filed tax returns for three years and they would have to have graduated from Maryland high schools.
The Dream Act would likely get a boost from the presidential race, since African-Americans, who support it 56 percent to 32 percent, are expected to come out in large numbers, Raabe said.
"As African-Americans, we had to go through something for education, for fair education," said Paul Stanley, a 78-year-old Bethesda man who said sees parallels with the civil rights and women's rights movements. "We had to go through the same thing. It is like a stem off the same branch."
On both sides of the tuition issue, voters have strong feelings, the poll found. "Children who are brought here by immigrant parents don't have a choice," said Connie Saltarelli, a 60-year-old Charles County Republican who will support the Dream Act. "They have every right to have residential college rates at state universities."
Statewide, white voters oppose the law, 47 percent to 39 percent. Among them is Joseph Raymond Sachs, a 58-year-old unemployed carpenter from Glen Burnie.
"That's why I'm out of a job," he said. "All these immigrants are taking all the work."
How the poll was done
OpinionWorks, an Annapolis research firm, did telephone interviews with 804 likely Maryland voters over three days, Sept. 25 to Sept. 27. According to customary statistical standards, this sample produces a margin of error of no more than plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. This means that 95 percent of the time, the "true" figure would fall within this range if every likely voter in Maryland had been interviewed.