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Sun/UB poll: Hogan widely popular

Gov. Larry Hogan after an October press conference
Gov. Larry Hogan after an October press conference (Christopher T. Assaf / Baltimore Sun)

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's popularity in heavily Democratic Maryland reaches nearly every corner of the state and cuts across party lines, according to a new poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.

Less than a year into his term, Hogan's approval rating among likely voters has soared to 63 percent and exceeds that of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, typically the state's most popular politician, the poll found. She is supported by 61 percent of voters.

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The governor's popularity is coupled to a dramatic swing in optimism about Maryland's future.

A majority of likely voters — 57 percent — now believe the state is moving in the right direction. It marks what pollster Steve Raabe calls an "enormous" swing in attitudes from the final months of former Gov. Martin O'Malley's tenure, when only 44 percent felt that way.

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"You almost never see that sort of shift," said Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, which conducted the poll. "Everybody, regardless of political stripe, feels like we're moving in the right direction."

The boom in optimism was led by a big swath of Republicans changing their minds in the year since Hogan was elected to succeed O'Malley, a Democrat.

"He's getting a lot of things done — pretty quickly — that he was aiming to get done when he was running for governor," said 25-year-old Breton Patton of Damascus, citing Hogan's work to curb state spending and market Maryland as open for business.

"Everything's been super common-sense," said Patton, a Republican who works in electronics manufacturing. "He's doing the things he said he was going to do, so he seems like he's someone who cares about regular people."

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While Hogan's popularity rests on steadfast support from fellow Republicans — 90 percent approve of the job he's done —– and voters in the state's rural areas, a majority of Democrats and urban dwellers also approve of Hogan.

His populist moves, such as lowering tolls on the Bay Bridge, and his relative newness in office have contributed to high approval ratings, Raabe said. Hogan is enjoying "an extended honeymoon," Raabe said, especially among Democrats in state where they outnumber Republicans more than 2-1.

"I'm a strong, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. And I approve," said Larry Regan, a 61-year-old lawyer from Rockville. "Hogan appears to be taking action. … I like his work on tolls. Boom. Doing something."

The survey of 926 likely voters statewide was conducted Nov. 13-17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Hogan's support is tempered within the city of Baltimore and among African-American voters across the state. Just 47 percent of city voters and 45 percent of African-Americans statewide approve of the job Hogan is doing.

"In my opinion, he's not for the inner-city people," said Democrat Eugenia Pinkney, 57.

Pinkney, an African-American retired corrections officer from Catonsville, said Hogan's campaign promises were primarily directed to people outside Baltimore, where she grew up. In her view, his decision to cancel the Red Line light rail system connecting East and West Baltimore meant millions wasted on planning it.

And during the unrest in April, she thought Hogan undermined Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to make himself look like "the cavalry." "He basically allowed her to fall on her face, and then he stepped in and took a Superman approach," she said.

Twenty percent of black voters statewide say they're not sure what to make of Hogan's time in office so far.

"There are some things that I like about him, and there are things he's doing that I don't like," said Willis Belgrave, 69, an African-American Democrat who lives in Baltimore.

Belgrave likes that Hogan pushed to repeal a controversial stormwater fee, that he was poised to deliver resources to Baltimore during the unrest last spring, and that the governor halted the Red Line.

But he finds Hogan's new city bus plan, which moves a line off Greenmount Avenue, "a very bad idea." And he thinks the governor made a mistake by withholding money from schools.

"For right now, he's OK," Belgrave said.

Statewide, Hogan's approval rating for his first year surpasses the ratings of his immediate predecessors after their initial months in office.

At roughly this point in O'Malley's tenure, his approval ratings were in the 30s, thanks to a series of unpopular tax increases enacted in 2007 to deal with a fiscal crisis. In the fall of 2003, polls gave Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, an approval rating in the high 50s.

Regan, who did not vote for Hogan, said the governor's decisive, pragmatic approach reminded him of the early days of the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, whom Hogan considers a friend and role model. Regan finds a lot to like in Hogan's moderate, pro-business attitude.

"I don't see him being a tea party crackpot. I like the fact that he's not beholden to the Baltimore City political machine," Regan said. "And I thought he was right on point on the Baltimore riots."

Hogan was less than 100 days into his administration when the death of Freddie Gray in April touched off riots and looting in the city. Political observers widely praised Hogan's handling of the situation as he called in the National Guard, mingled in the streets and vowed to restore order. At the same time, observers widely criticized Rawlings-Blake for not being more visible early in the crisis.

The poll found Maryland residents agreed with the pundits.

While 60 percent approved of the way Hogan handled the situation, a majority — 54 percent — disapproved of the mayor's response.

In assessing why she approved of Hogan, Debbie Todd, a Democrat from Cambridge, cited first the toll reductions and second his relative grace under fire during the Baltimore riots.

"It was a lack of leadership by the mayor," said Todd, a 63-year-old retired veterinary assistant. "Hogan, he tried to come in and do what he could do. He was very calm about it. ... He said he was sitting back waiting for the word from Rawlings-Blake. He was on the ball. He wasn't going to pussyfoot around."

Todd said the governor's move to cut Bay Bridge tolls from $6 to $4 was widely popular in her Eastern Shore neighborhood, even among Democrats who didn't vote for him.

"Overall, he is trying to help the people," she said. "Every little bit you can save helps, especially when gas was higher. ... People's pocketbooks matter."

In his first 11 months in office, Hogan has persuaded most of the electorate that he is on their side, the poll found.

Fifty-three percent said they agreed that "Larry Hogan is looking out for the interests of people like me." Fewer than a quarter of respondents were neutral or unsure.

Alexander Rai, a 37-year-old government teacher from the Washington suburbs, counts himself among the undecided.

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Rai, a Democrat, said Hogan's campaign ads about the so-called "rain tax" — which the legislature repealed at Hogan's urging — left a bad taste in his mouth. He also was displeased by Hogan's decision not to release $68 million lawmakers earmarked for schools.

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But watching the way Hogan publicly confronted a cancer diagnosis this year left Rai willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"It made him feel more real, like a real person, Rai said. "He's still very to the right, but he's gotten a lot of people on the left to become intrigued by him."

In late June, Hogan announced he had Stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and said he planned to stay on the job while undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy. This month, bald and still visibly affected by the treatment, Hogan announced he was "100 percent cancer-free."

"He doesn't look real good — he's looks like he's been through the mill," said Donald LaFond, a 78-year-old Democrat and retired educator from the Eastern Shore. "Anybody who has had a loved one, or known someone who has had cancer, certainly you're going to be somewhat sympathetic. That's the reason I'm saying, 'Hey he's got a lot on his plate.' That's why I'm not saying he's doing anything wrong."

LaFond has found things to take issue with, especially Hogan's stance on education funding. LaFond also has concerns about Hogan's decision to ask the federal government to stop settling Syrian refugees in Maryland, which happened after the poll was completed.

"He's certainly playing to his own political leanings," LaFond said. "He's a Republican, so he's looking at some of the things the previous administration did and raising questions, as he should be."

Raabe said that while many Democrats disagree with Hogan's position on refugees, it was unlikely to significantly affect the governor's overall approval rating.

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About this poll

Results are based on a survey of 926 likely Maryland voters of all parties. 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. Voters were randomly selected for interviews from a voter file provided by the state Board of Elections. The survey was conducted by telephone, both land-based and cellular, by trained interviewers from Nov. 13 to Nov. 17. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

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