If clear choices were a cure for the voter malaise of 1994, Marylanders might be on the road to recovery.
Throughout the United States, voters are said to be on the verge of electoral paralysis, so vexed are they by a political system that seems to shut them out.
Marylanders, though, could enjoy a virtual hands-on adventure in statecraft this year. Not in a quarter-century have they been treated to such a competitive and defining race for governor.
"What you've got in Maryland is what we should all have," says Becky Cain, national president of the League of Women Voters. "You've got candidates who've been willing to articulate their differences."
Perhaps, some voters would have preferred a wider range of choices now or in the primaries, but to paraphrase the father of all anti-incumbents, George Corley Wallace of Ala- bama, there's a lot more than a dime's worth of difference between these two.
Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a little-known House of Delegates veteran, bids to re-write Maryland political history. She would be the state's first female governor. And she would achieve that distinction by rejecting the view that Republicans can win in this state only by denying their Republicanism, by moderating their views to attract Democratic support.
Starting with so little name recognition that some voters knew her platform before they knew her name, she has ridden the wave of disaffection as if it were her destiny and Maryland's. A Sauerbrey victory would end 26 years of Democratic rule and would bring her promise of a 24 percent cut in personal income taxes over four years.
Her opponent, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, the three-term Prince George's County executive, matched her performance in his own primary, building a mighty surge that swept away several rivals.
In his matchup with Mrs. Sauerbrey, he has offered absolutely no quarter, insisting that government must work well and can in competent hands -- his hands.
Tax cuts of the size proposed by his opponent, he says, are illusory "sugar plums." Marylanders are too sophisticated to fall for what his television advertisements call a "gimmick."
One of Mr. Glendening's chief strategists, John T. Willis, says the candidates are so different that a pure and profound "conversion" would be necessary now to change minds at this point in the race. Since most Marylanders are registered Democrats, he reasons, the campaign favors his man.
Carol Hirschburg, one of Mrs. Sauerbrey's advisers, agrees that the candidates oppose each other across a deep philosophical divide. But she thinks the conversions have been occurring for years -- not just to the GOP but to the ranks of the independents: "The course of the mainstream in Maryland," she says with confident finality, "has shifted."
Voters will speak on Tuesday.
Pollsters, academics and officials of national voter registration projects say the well-heralded anger of 1994 will influence decision making in Maryland and elsewhere. Some will vote with no objective in mind other than change. And an angry voter whose objective is to derail the legislative locomotive might not be a careful analyst.
A consensus holds that the electorate is not nearly finished with its determination to find new blood -- by letting old blood if necessary.
"We are not at all beyond message sending in this election," says Curtis B. Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. In general, he says, "We have still not had a serious debate about anything."
Voter anger is presented as irrationality, but it seems to flow from a thoroughgoing disgust with the system -- negative advertising, refusal by commercial media outlets to televise debates, the corrupting role of money, resistance by those in power to change the electoral system to bring in wider points of view. No single election is likely, then, to put the
voters' unhappiness into remission. Fundamental reform will be necessary to do that.
In the meantime, the aggressive assault on officeholders seems to target Democrats because they have a majority of the officeholders, but analysts such as Andrew Kohut of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press say Republicans can take only momentary solace.
"It's time to throw the rascals out and elect a new bunch of rascals," one voter said giddily last week in a radio interview.
Moreover, a certain amount of confusion creeps into the process. A majority of voters in a Wilmington (Del.) News Journal poll agreed with both of the following: Delaware Republican Sen. William Roth "has been senator for 24 years, and it is now time for a change"; and Mr. Roth "has been an outstanding senator and deserves re-election."
Little time for analysis
Perhaps, some of the voters' anger is rooted in the knowledge that they spend less time considering their options than they would like. With more and more two-worker households, time for careful analysis is reduced.
Overall, voters still focus on concerns of immediate importance, according to Leslie M. Watson-Davis, director of Project Vote, a non-partisan, Washington-based voter registration program directed at minority group members. The concerns of character and trust matter, she says, but the bottom line will be what it always is: taxes, education, jobs and crime.
Mr. Kohut of the Times-Mirror Center acknowledges that old political axioms have begun to assert themselves even this year. survey done last week, he says, showed that "the percentage of respondents who said local issues mattered a lot [were] up by 10 percent over early October when the incumbent members of Congress were in Washington. . . ." Until those results were in, he says, he was convinced the mood of disaffection would overwhelm issues.
Ms. Watson-Davis says the voter is underestimated. "No matter which way they go, he or she knows there will be some risk involved," she says. Most of them will not vote strictly out of anger. "They're asking themselves, 'Which candidate will do the least amount of damage to my day-to-day life, my family, our ability to have full employment?' "
She is also unpersuaded by those who fear the African-American voter will be a no-show this year.
"We have been helped a great deal by the image of Nelson Mandela going from prisoner to president in South Africa. The long lines, the recognition of the sacrifices there remind people of what happened years ago in this country."
She believes the 150,000 new voters registered this year by her group will vote on Tuesday. Many black and urban voters are being told they must get to the polls to save the cities and the social programs that poor Americans depend upon.
Fear, Mr. Gans says, has often been a powerful lever against a voter boycott.
Undecided about voting
Even clear choices, though, have their limitations as voter motivators. Even in Maryland, some voters are still deciding not which candidate to support, but whether to participate in the election at all.
One such doubly undecided Marylander is Mike Bowman, a 42-year-old Vietnam-era veteran who works at the General Motors plant on Broening Highway installing engine covers on vans.
Mr. Bowman offers a profile of a voter on the verge of dropping out.
"I haven't paid much attention to it," he says of the election. For the unfocused, he says, the barrage of television advertising is anything but alluring or educating.
"So much stuff is going on with politicians I really don't even care what they're saying. I guess when the time comes someone will tell me, 'Think about this, think about that.' But right now I couldn't care less."
If he was leaning in any direction, he volunteers, it would be toward Mrs. Sauerbrey, but he is bracing himself for some personal revelation about her or her opponent, and the thought seems to represent yet another barrier.
"That's why I haven't even decided if I'll vote or not," he says. He is a Democrat, but party affiliation is of little concern to him. If he votes, he'll vote the candidate he likes irrespective of party.
His decision would be influenced most heavily, he reckons, by his worry about crime. Fear is shrinking his world: A resident of Perry Hall, he couldn't imagine coming into downtown Baltimore at night. Once again, he approaches the question with a built-in pessimism.
"They have to do something about it, but I don't think anyone has an answer."
A more hopeful approach was expressed by Roosevelt Robinson Sr. as he stood outside the GM plant gates a few minutes after Mr. Bowman went inside to start his shift.
He, too, puts crime near the top of his concerns. He thinks getting rid of guns is an important part of the answer. Mrs. Sauerbrey opposes gun control measures, Mr. Glendening favors them.
So the 50-year-old African-American, an official of the United Auto Workers, favors Mr. Glendening.
Mr. Robinson pressed his point:
"They're murdering people, black people, black children," he said. "They say its not the guns that kill, its people -- but if I don't have a gun I can't kill anybody, right?"
Mr. Robinson said he finds his co-workers engrossed in the campaign, eager viewers of televised debates and avid readers of stories about what could be their last best opportunity to shape government in Maryland.
Few are asking if it makes any difference who wins.
D8 C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.