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Maryland could help pick presidential nominees, for a change

As presidential campaigns are ramping up in Maryland, Peg Nemoff of Towson talks on the phone as volunteers call to ask for support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders from their office at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center.
As presidential campaigns are ramping up in Maryland, Peg Nemoff of Towson talks on the phone as volunteers call to ask for support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders from their office at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

WASHINGTON — Marylanders who vote in the state's presidential primaries this month will find themselves in an unfamiliar position: For the first time in years, their choices might actually matter.

Maryland's late primary — it falls nearly three months after the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses — generally relegates the Old Line State to an afterthought in the presidential nomination process. But in this unpredictable election year, Maryland could exert a level of influence not felt in decades.

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That is particularly true for the state's nearly 1 million Republicans, who will help decide whether billionaire Donald Trump will secure the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination or whether the GOP will hold a contested convention for the first time since 1976.

"It's going to be exciting," said state Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican and the state chairman for Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign. "Usually you know when the presidential primary is over — because Maryland is voting."

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Pennsylvania is the biggest prize April 26, but Maryland offers candidates the second-largest number of delegates of the five states that vote that day (the others are Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island).

The campaigns are already organizing in the state, and one candidate — Democrat Hillary Clinton — has scheduled a visit.

For Clinton, wins in Maryland and Pennsylvania would help her to counter the momentum that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been able to lay claim to with a string of victories in Wisconsin, Washington and elsewhere.

Maryland, with its diverse electorate and closed primary system — in which only registered Democrats may vote — is the type of state where Clinton has shined.

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"Any time you have a win, you have momentum," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and longtime Clinton supporter, said in an interview. "I think this state plays to her strengths."

An upset by Sanders in a place such as Maryland could undermine the prevailing wisdom that his 200-plus deficit in pledged delegates is virtually insurmountable.

Neither campaign is taking Maryland for granted: Both have staff members on the ground and have started to organize volunteers. Sanders supporters have opened four campaign offices in the state, including one in Bolton Hill, and volunteers have been using that space for phone banking and organizing. Clinton's campaign has held several volunteer events in the state, and she is scheduled to visit Baltimore on Sunday.

Cruz has staff in Maryland, and while the campaign has not announced any public events, organizers are pulling together volunteers and have been going door to door. Ohio Gov. John Kasich's operation has been less visible, though the campaign announced several new endorsements from Maryland last week. Trump has eschewed the kind of on-the-ground organizing other campaigns have embraced, and there is little indication that he is taking a different approach in Maryland.

All of those efforts are likely to get ratcheted up after New York's primary April 19.

Polling indicates that Trump is leading among Maryland's Republican voters and Clinton is strong with Democrats. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Thursday the most recent available showed Clinton with a 15-point lead over Sanders in the state. Trump had a 10-point lead over Kasich, and Cruz was in third place with support from 22 percent of respondents.

But polling tells only part of the story. The battle among Republicans is for delegates as much as the statewide vote. And the arcane party rules used to administer the primary will enable Cruz and Kasich to deprive Trump of delegates even if they are unable to muster a win.

"Maryland is going to play a very important role in determining whether Donald Trump gets to the delegate count he needs for the nomination," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.

State Republicans use a hybrid system in which delegates are awarded to the winner of each congressional district — three for each of the eight districts — and another 14 are allocated statewide. A total of 38 delegates are at stake.

Democrats, who use a proportional system, will allocate some number of delegates to Sanders and Clinton. How many delegates each candidate receives will depend on the results in each of the eight congressional districts, as well as the statewide counts.

Maryland drew some attention during the 2008 Democratic primary between Clinton and Barack Obama, but by the time the state held its primary, the math appeared to favor Obama the way it seems to favor Clinton today (he won the state, en route to the Democratic nomination and the White House).

The Democratic nomination was still undecided in 1984, when Maryland helped Walter Mondale defeat Gary Hart.

While Pennsylvania will receive more attention from the campaigns leading up to April 26, the rules that govern the Keystone State's Republican primary might encourage the GOP field to look in on neighboring Maryland.

The vast majority of Republican delegates in Pennsylvania are unbound, meaning they can support whomever they choose at the GOP convention in July, irrespective of who wins the popular vote.

In Maryland, most delegates must support the candidate who wins their congressional district — at least in the early rounds of convention balloting.

In other words, Pennsylvania's delegates are like free agents; Maryland's are like spouses. A candidate heading into a potentially messy contested convention wants delegates who are loyal — and if they're required to be so by a higher authority, even better.

When Pennsylvania voters head to the ballot, there is no way for them to determine which delegates are supporting which candidate.

"The ballot is simply names listed one after the other," said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania political consultant who worked with the campaign of Republican Carly Fiorina before the California businesswoman left the race. "Delegates aren't in any way clustered by preference — or anything."

In Maryland, the ballot lists the name of the presidential candidate a delegate supports.

If a contested GOP convention continues into latter rounds of balloting, the groundwork thecampaigns laid in Maryland months ago could pay dividends.

Joe Collins Jr., a Baltimore man who helped select delegates for Trump in Maryland, said his operation chose its delegates meticulously, in expectation of multiple rounds of balloting.

"We picked the delegates specifically for a floor fight," he said. "Our delegates are locked solid."

That might be true in parts of the state, but other delegate candidates said they had not heard from anyone from the Trump operation in months, if at all. No one involved with the Trump campaign was able to identify an example of any organizing activity taking place this past week.

Still, Trump has run — and won — in states across the country with less emphasis on traditional organization and a focus instead on big rallies.

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Trump has tended to draw support from rural voters such as on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. Cruz could be strong in the 8th Congressional District, which includes portions of Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll counties, in part because that is a stronghold for two of the state lawmakers involved in organizing for him: Hough, and state Sen. Justin D. Ready.

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The wild cards, observers said, will be in places such as Maryland's 7th District — heavily Democratic territory that includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties.

"The Republican primary is going to be very open, and I would expect that it could be very close," said Ready, of Carroll County. "It's going to be real battleground."

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