City Voters Exercise Muscle

The crucial role Baltimore voters played in President-elect Bill Clinton's smashing victory in Maryland should silence much of the talk about the city's diminishing clout in statewide politics.

Baltimore's shrinking population and the rise of the metropolitan area suburbs notwithstanding, the city remains a major player in Maryland politics.


Baltimore Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 9-to-1 ratio. That gives the city disproportionate power in Democratic

primaries, where many statewide races are effectively decided because Maryland is overwhelmingly Democratic.


And while Baltimore has just the third largest number of registered voters in the state, they vote as a Democratic bloc, creating large advantages for Democratic candidates in general elections.

Look at what Baltimore voters did for Bill Clinton. Before more than 8,000 absentee ballots were counted, the president-elect won Baltimore by 141,441 votes -- the largest margin of victory by a Democratic presidential candidate in the city since at least 1964.

That margin contributed to Mr. Clinton's powerful victory in Maryland, where he carried 50 percent of the vote in the three-way contest. It was Mr. Clinton's strongest showing outside of his native Arkansas.

"Baltimore produced a higher margin for the Democratic ticket than all the other counties combined," said Larry Gibson, chairman of Mr. Clinton's Maryland effort. "We are proud to have done well among suburban voters in Baltimore County, Prince George's, and Montgomery and Howard counties. But it is important to observe that the margin for the the Democratic ticket from Baltimore was more than all those places combined."

None of that would have been obvious before the election. With its diminishing population and poor voter demographics -- a high number of low-income families, a high number of transients and a significant population of renters -- the city seemed well on its way to becoming an insignificant player in state political life.

Just last year, voter registration in the city was about 309,000 -- a steep fall from the recent high of 428,000 in 1984. Making matters worse, turnouts in recent city elections had been abysmal. During the 1988 presidential election, for instance, city turnout was just 59 percent. Statewide, voter turnout that year was 76 percent.

"The city was close to losing its rank," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College, who studies Baltimore voting patterns. "For years, Baltimore has been like the battleship of the Maryland Democratic Party. But we were very close to losing that status."

And to some, Mr. Clinton seemed an unlikely candidate to change that. He was criticized by some elected officials and pundits for focusing too closely on the suburban vote and ignoring the most loyal Democrats: urban blacks.


But that analysis overlooked the strong support Mr. Clinton lined from black elected officials nationwide. And they delivered for Mr. Clinton in a big way. Nationally, blacks gave 82 percent of their votes to Mr. Clinton, while bettering their 1988 turnout by an estimated 13 percent.

Baltimore -- where the electorate is an estimated 63 percent black -- was very much part of that trend. Major politicians, led by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke got behind high visibility voter registration and voter turnout campaigns. And they worked. Registration in the city rebounded to 368,000, and turnout this Election Day was a respectable 68 percent. Statewide, turnout was 81 percent.

"Much of the residue from 1988, the concern that Baltimore was losing clout because of bad registration numbers and and low voting, is now lifted," Mr. Smith said. "I think we redeemed ourselves from the 1988 turnout . . . and the voter registration and turnout campaigns had an impact on that."

Mr. Gibson said the series of poor voter turnouts in the city in recent years reflected normal voter dynamics. He said voters come out in strong numbers when they are dissatisfied with an incumbent, when there is a pressing issue or when they sense a favored candidate is in danger of losing.

None of those factors has been present in recent elections, he said.

As Mr. Gibson sees it, Baltimore's continued political power was never in doubt. "I think the truth is quite the contrary," he said. "Because of the city's demonstrated ability to vote heavily and as a bloc, it will remain a force. And to a candidate, it is the margin that counts."


Michael Fletcher covers City Hall for The Baltimore Sun.