Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker have emerged from the crowded Democratic field as the front-runners in the primary race to be Maryland’s next governor.
Baker and Jealous are tied with 16 percent of the vote each in the seven-way contest, according to a new poll of registered likely voters for The Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore.
Each has three times the support of their closest competitor, and even though a huge swath of voters is undecided, political analysts say it is unlikely the lower-tier candidates could bridge that gap with the election less than three weeks away.
“It’s very likely it’s going to be one of these two leaders who wins,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. The survey of 500 likely Maryland Democratic primary voters was conducted by telephone May 29 to June 6. It has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Though Baker and Jealous lead the pack, most Democratic voters are disengaged from the contest and have not made up their minds about the June 26 primary election, the poll showed.
Forty-four percent of voters say they are undecided, and 57 percent say they have paid “only a little” attention to race. Of voters who have settled on a candidate, more than half said they might change their minds.
Four Democratic candidates are currently statistically tied in the single digits.
Former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin, who has spent weeks unsuccessfully trying to pressure state election officials to amend the ballot after the death of her former running mate Kevin Kamenetz, has support from 5 percent of voters.
Kamenetz’s name will remain at the top of the ticket, but a vote for the late Baltimore County executive will count for Ervin.
Three candidates — state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno of Montgomery County, former Venable law firm chairman Jim Shea and former Michelle Obama policy adviser Krish Vignarajah — each have 4 percent of the vote.
Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, meanwhile, was in seventh place with 1 percent.
The large Democratic field mostly agrees on the issues and has struggled to gain voter attention, especially against the popularity of incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
“I don’t really even know all the candidates running for governor,” said Ray Woodson, a 47-year-old social worker from Baltimore who says he votes in every Democratic primary election.
Woodson said he’s leaning toward voting for Hogan in the fall in part because the Democratic candidates have not impressed him.
“Honestly, man, I’ve only seen one,” Woodson said. “That goes to show how much work they’re putting in.”
Despite the state’s deep blue reputation and Democrats’ 2-to-1 registration advantage, the poll showed many Democrats think highly of Hogan.
Only 37 percent of Democratic voters say they are confident a fellow Democrat would do a better job than Hogan.
And nearly a quarter of the Democratic voters say they plan to support Hogan in November, when he seeks to be the first Republican governor since 1954 to win re-election in Maryland.
“Wow, that’s a pretty big number,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “Hogan is still very much the man to beat in this race. … There’s a tall order for whoever the nominee is.”
In a contest with so many candidates, the Democratic primary winner needs as little as 20 percent of the vote to win, political analysts said.
“The turnout machine makes a difference. Whoever has the best operation could win," Hartley said.
John T. Willis, a Democratic strategist and executive in residence at the University of Baltimore, said it would be very hard for candidates polling in the single digits to sway enough undecided voters in a seven-way race to garner enough support to win.
But when it comes to Jealous and Baker, he said, “it’s an extraordinarily volatile race.”
“I would expect everyone to trumpet their strengths over the next three weeks and see where that falls,” Willis said.
If the race comes down to Jealous and Baker, it could amount to a battle of the Baltimore region, where voters prefer Jealous, and the D.C. suburbs, where Baker has stronger support, according to the poll. Each region has nearly 1 million registered Democrats. Baker has support from roughly a quarter of voters in the Washington suburbs, while Jealous has about the same following in the Baltimore area.
"Ben Jealous’ vote is a little bit firmer than Baker’s," said Raabe, the pollster.
He noted that Baker is doing especially well among African-Americans and winning Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Jealous is doing well among whites and in Baltimore City.
“Jealous is appealing to younger voters. He’s the guy who is positioned to consolidate and move forward,” Raabe said. “Baker’s really got to come up to Baltimore in the final weeks and make inroads.”
Jealous has locked down support from influential labor unions, including teachers and nurses, and pitches himself as a progressive modeled after one of his mentors and supporters, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Jealous supports a $15 minimum wage, legalized marijuana, a 29 percent pay increase for teachers, free community college and a state-run health care system.
His platform resonates with supporters of Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, such as Jean Pierre Isbendjian, a 61-year-old consultant from Howard County who met Jealous at an event organized by some activist friends.
“He seemed to be genuine, and he’s supported by Bernie Sanders,” Isbendjian said. “Those are the elements that would be sufficient for supporting him.”
Baker, meanwhile, has amassed endorsements from the state’s most prominent Democrats, including Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and former governor Martin O’Malley. He’s a two-term county executive and former state lawmaker who tells voters he’s taken on politically tough problems and can turn around the state the way he’s shifted the fortunes of Prince George’s County.
“He’s the candidate I’m most familiar with,” said Baker supporter Jeff Carpenter, a 41-year-old school administrator from Montgomery County. Carpenter’s impressed with the way Baker has tried to transform the neighboring school district.
“They still have problems, but we have been watching the schools there,” Carpenter said. “He’s focused on the schools, and the schools need to improve.”
While political analysts say it’s not impossible for the candidates polling in the single-digits to catch up, they would need to do something dramatic to surge ahead. And they will be trying as Baker and Jealous also are battling to attract undecided voters.
“If you’ve got a war chest, you’ve got to start unloading it now,” Raabe said.
Vignarajah and Ross have not run television ads to date, though she announced plans to start on Monday.
Jealous, Shea, Baker and Madaleno have been running ads in different markets throughout the state. The poll showed differences in their bases of support.
Shea showed strength in the Baltimore region; his support is mixed between people who like and dislike Hogan. Madaleno’s base is the most anti-Hogan and largely located in his home county of Montgomery.
“Madaleno is extremely interesting, but he seems to have a hard time breaking out of a white, liberal base in Montgomery County,” Raabe said. “His supporters appear to me to be the most liberal. They really dislike Larry Hogan. But there just aren’t enough of those people for him to catch fire.”
More than three-fifths of Vignarajah supporters have advanced degrees, the poll shows.
“Krish’s voters are extremely highly educated,” Raabe said. “She’s got a small group of very smart people behind her.”
For months, the Democratic candidates have participated in numerous forums around the state, including three that have been televised. Some Democratic voters who have been paying close attention still struggle to settle on a candidate.
“The difficulty I’m running into is the people I know about seem to have a lot in common,” said Rachel Morey, a 47-year-old special education contractor who lives in Carroll County.
Morey recorded the debates and planned to watch them with her family in hopes some differences become clear.
“There’s not a lot of strong, clear, distinct choice,” she said. “My hope is that’s because we’re putting out a lot of strong candidates. My fear is that when I scratch the surface, they’re going to be superficial candidates.”
About this poll
Results are based on a survey of 500 likely Maryland Democratic primary voters. The poll was done by OpinionWorks of Annapolis for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs and Schaefer Center for Public Policy. The survey was conducted by telephone, both land-based and cellular, by trained interviewers from May 29 to June 6. Voters were randomly selected for interviews from a voter file provided by the State Board of Elections. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.