NOT an opinion, just math: During the past four years, the growth in the number of independent voters in Maryland has been significant -- second only to the growth in the number of Democrats. What's more, both independents and Democrats have outgrown Republicans by considerable margins, and the gap between Democrats and Republicans is wider now than it was when Bob Ehrlich took office as the state's first GOP governor in 30 years.
What does it all mean?
Opinion based on math: It means independents are one of the fastest-growing segments of the voter population, and that about 25,000 citizens a year chose not to affiliate with either major party.
But it also means that Democrats are still adding significantly to their rolls.
And it means Republicans have not seen the rise in Grand Old Party registration that they hoped would come with Ehrlich's big victory in 2002 and his strong and consistent likableness levels in polls. During the Ehrlich years in Annapolis, Marylanders have chosen Democratic or independent affiliation over Republican by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio.
For whatever reason -- George Bush's presidency and the war in Iraq, Ehrlich's almost singular focus on slot machines in his first years in office -- the governor and party leaders seem to have missed a chance to begin a political realignment in Maryland.
To the math:
In January 2003, the month Ehrlich took office after defeating Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the last gubernatorial election, there were 1,568,027 Democrats registered with the Maryland Board of Elections. There were 841,520 Republicans.
That's a margin of 726,507.
Now let's go to July 2006, and the freshest numbers from the Board of Elections, released Tuesday.
As of last month, there were 1,699,400 Democrats and 899,489 Republicans.
That's a margin of 799,911.
That means the Democratic Party added to its lead over Republicans by about 73,000 voters during the last 43 months.
Apparently, there was a lot of talk -- assumptions, hopes and dreams -- that Ehrlich's win in 2002 heralded a new age in Maryland. The Republican red wave was starting to build.
But, by the numbers, the Democratic margin has gotten bigger, not smaller. After losing some ground in its edge for a while in 2003, the Democrats picked up new members during the 2004 presidential campaign and since then.
I heard the governor, in a campaign appearance this summer with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, refer to Maryland as a "light blue" state.
Opinion: That's wishful thinking. This is still a blue state. In fact, it's bluer.
In my look at the figures between January 2003 and July 2006, the Maryland Republican Party gets one registration victory -- it picked up the lead in one county, Calvert, by a slight margin. The Calvert pickup gives the GOP an edge over Democrats in eight Maryland counties now, the others being Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Washington.
But Democrats outnumber Republicans by significant margins in the Baltimore region and the D.C. suburbs.
Steve Jost, a veteran consultant for Democratic candidates who analyzed registration numbers through June of this year, said Republicans deserve credit for achieving registration gains in several rural and suburban jurisdictions. But the net gains were offset by significant Democratic advances in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. There was even a net gain in Democrats in Baltimore County, Ehrlich's home.
Based on the numbers, the governor's campaign for re-election is a daunting task. In light of them, it's remarkable that he has closed the gap in recent polls on Martin O'Malley, a significantly stronger candidate than the one Ehrlich faced in 2002.
Obviously, the battle in the 2006 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races will be for independent voters -- those who are officially listed as "unaffiliated" or "other" by the Board of Elections.
In January 2003, there were 378,795 Marylanders listed as "unaffiliated" or "other."
The total for that group last month was 480,237.
That represents a growth of more than 100,000 independent voters in less than four years. (The number of independents is seen, in part, as an outgrowth of the 11-year-old motor-voter program in Maryland, which provides registration forms at Motor Vehicle Administration offices.)
Meanwhile, the number of Democrats has grown by 131,373 since January 2003, and the number of Republicans by 57,969.
That would make Republicans third in new growth.
Of course, none of this prohibits victory in November for Bob Ehrlich or Michael Steele, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate. Marylanders elected some Republican presidents and senators within the past three decades, and there is virtually no way of telling which way all those independent voters will go in November, or how many will even bother to vote.
But given Bush's approval ratings, and the attitudes of Americans toward the war in Iraq and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina a year ago this month, you don't have to be a political scientist to see a trend. In Maryland, the latest voter registration figures add another layer to the picture, and for anyone who hoped that Ehrlich's 2002 election would mark the dawn of a new alignment in the Old Line State, the picture isn't exactly pretty.
(Public service announcement: Tuesday is the last day to register to vote before the primary election.)
Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks. Ex-offenders seeking help in finding employment or drug addicts seeking help in arranging treatment should call 410-332-6166.