With less than four months to go before national midterm elections, Maryland voters have given President Clinton his worst job-performance ratings since he took office, according to poll results released yesterday.
Only 38 percent of the Maryland voters polled rated Mr. Clinton's job performance as good or excellent this month as opposed to 51 percent in February, the poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research found.
The drop in Mr. Clinton's ratings in Maryland -- which gave the president his second largest majority in the 1992 election behind his home state of Arkansas -- parallels those in recent national polls.
Pollsters in Maryland and elsewhere said yesterday that the president's slide has occurred at the same time that public support has fallen for his major domestic policy initiative -- health care reform.
think a lot of the controversy over the health care plan and the fact that it has not been resolved has left the public uneasy," said David Moore, managing editor of the Gallup Poll.
Yesterday's Mason-Dixon poll results showed that 44 percent of Maryland voters opposed the Clinton health-care reform plan, while only 33 percent said they favored it. The remaining 23 percent were undecided. It was the first time Mason-Dixon had asked the question in the state.
Maryland Republicans cited the slip in Mr. Clinton's job performance ratings as evidence that 1994 is their year to win big in this heavily Democratic state, where they have been shut out of the governor's office for 26 years.
"You made my day," said Joyce L. Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, after hearing about the drop. "I cannot believe that most Democrat candidates will want to have Clinton campaign for them."
Democrats took the numbers in stride, noting that four months can be an eternity in politics.
"These numbers will seem very old by November," said Michael D. Barnes, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former Maryland congressman. "November's a long time away, when you consider that Congress is hard at work on a wide range of very important legislation," he said, referring to crime, health care and welfare reform.
Other political observers agreed.
Del Ali, vice president of Mason-Dixon, said that Mr. Clinton's job performance ratings -- which have seesawed in the past 17 months in Maryland -- could quickly turn around if Congress passes a health care bill before the Nov. 8 election.
"Right now, Bill Clinton's a drag on the ticket," said Mr. Ali, who has done polling for the Columbia-based firm for the past eight years. "If health care reform passes, you're going to find all these U.S. senators . . . saying, 'Hey, Bill. Come on down here. I'd like to have you over for dinner.' "
Mason-Dixon conducted its poll July 15-17 for The Sun and other news organizations. The poll focused on 839 Marylanders who said they regularly vote in elections. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The poll found that Mr. Clinton received the best job performance ratings in suburban counties near Washington, where there are many federal workers. Most of his poorest showings were in the state's more conservative, rural areas -- the Eastern Shore and Southern and Western Maryland.
Mr. Clinton fared the worst overall in Baltimore County, where only 25 percent rated his job performance as good or excellent.
In Baltimore, which has black and Democratic majorities, only 42 percent of voters polled gave Mr. Clinton a rating of excellent or good. Mr. Ali attributed some of the low showing to criticism of the president's Haitian policy from U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who lives in Baltimore.
The poll suggested that some Marylanders may not fully understand the president's health care plan, said Mr. Ali. For instance, while 44 percent polled said they opposed the plan, a higher percentage said they supported two of the reform package's main provisions.
Forty-eight percent said businesses should be required to pay most of their employees' health insurance coverage. Fifty-five percent said they would be willing to pay more for health care if it guaranteed health insurance for everyone.
As to what the polls in Maryland and nationally say about Mr. Clinton's long-term political health, pollsters say one should be cautious about drawing conclusions. As usual, history is informative.
In July 1982, President Ronald Reagan's approval ratings nationally were at 42 percent. In a Gallup Poll conducted this July 15-17, Mr. Clinton's approval rating was identical -- 42 percent. (In the world of polling, approval ratings are different from job performance ratings and generally a bit higher.)
Republicans weathered a tough midterm election in 1982 -- losing a relatively high 26 seats in the House of Representatives. Mr. Reagan then went on to a landslide re-election in 1984.
VOTERS RATE CLINTON
MARYLAND POLL ASKED, "How would you rate the performance of Bill Clinton as president -- excellent, pretty good, fair or poor?"
Percentages who said "excellent" or "good" by region:
Eastern Shore/So. Md. ... ... ..28%
Baltimore County ... ... ... .. 25
Baltimore City ... ... .... ... 42
Central Md. suburbs ... ... ... 35
Prince George's County ... ... .52
Montgomery County ... ... ... .46
Western Maryland... ... ... .. 28
Same answers by race:
Blacks ... ... ... ... ... ... 60%
Whites ... ... ... ... ... ... 31