Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown has staked out a sizable lead in the Democratic contest for governor, but the primary race is far from decided as many voters have yet to pick a candidate, according to a new opinion poll for The Baltimore Sun.
Bolstered by overwhelming support from African-Americans statewide and voters in his home county of Prince George's, Brown is 21 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, the poll indicates.
But 40 percent of likely Democratic voters in Maryland are still undecided four months before the June 24 primary, the poll found. The Republican contest is even more wide open, with two-thirds of likely voters surveyed saying they have no favorite in the race.
The lack of enthusiasm in both parties leaves room for another candidate to jump in before next week's filing deadline, and for those who are trailing to make up ground.
"The primary is fast approaching, with voters who are not really tuned in. And those who are tuned in are not very excited about the choices that they're being offered," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis polling firm that conducted the telephone survey for The Sun. "That's really a formula for a potential surprise."
The poll indicates that 35 percent of likely Democratic voters support Brown, 14 percent back Gansler and 10 percent Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County. The survey has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
In the Republican primary, Larry Hogan, a former Ehrlich administration official who entered the race last month, leads with 13 percent, the poll shows, and Harford County Executive David R. Craig garnered 7 percent after seven months of campaigning. Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County has 6 percent and Charles County business executive Charles Lollar 5 percent.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in Maryland, and the Democratic nominee will have a built-in advantage going into the November general election.
John Bushrod, a Prince George's County Democrat, says he will be an informed voter by the time the primary arrives but can't distinguish one candidate from another now. "Do you know who is running? Could you send me some information?" asked Bushrod, 67, who participated in the survey and agreed to be interviewed later by a reporter. "This is the first time I heard anything about it, or thought about it."
For now, William "Ban" Pratt, 45, of Baltimore supports Brown, but he said that is primarily because Brown is the only candidate he recognizes. "When it's six weeks before it's time to vote, I'll read up," Pratt said. "That's what I intend to do."
Even though a large number of voters share a wait-and-see approach, the negative publicity around two Democratic candidates has had some impact.
Brown, who was the governor's point man on the development of Maryland's health exchange, appears to have weathered its troubled launch better than Gansler has overcome negative news media attention.
About 25 percent of the voters surveyed said they were less likely to vote for Brown because of the health exchange's widespread problems. A larger number — 47 percent — said they were less likely to vote for Gansler after revelations that he was present at a teen party where there appeared to be underage drinking.
Gansler has hammered Brown about failed leadership in the rollout of the state health exchange. Brown and Mizeur have largely declined to comment on Gansler's troubles.
Raabe said Democratic primary voters in Maryland support the federal Affordable Care Act and are more likely to forgive Brown for problems with its implementation. The party episode, by contrast, reflects on Gansler's character, he said.
Jennifer Gaegler, 39, a Gansler supporter from Montgomery County who participated in the survey, said she watched friends and neighbors struggle to get health care through the exchange.
"It wasn't handled very well and it worries me," Gaegler said. "If that was not handled well, how will other big issues will be handled?"
Yonette Exeter of Gaithersburg, who supports Brown, said she was turned off by Gansler's explanation that he didn't have a responsibility to shut down the party, a statement the attorney general later revised.
"If you're an adult, you're supposed to be setting an example," said Exeter, 44. "You're going to say one thing as a politician and when you're caught with your hand in the cookie jar, then you say something else?"
The poll indicates the party issue matters more to women, with 51 percent of female respondents saying they are less likely to vote for Gansler because of it.
Regina James-Banks, 33, of Baltimore said the negative publicity about Brown and Gansler makes her less likely to vote for them, though she really doesn't know much about either one.
She is supporting Mizeur, whom she saw giving a television interview about legalizing marijuana to raise tax revenue to pay for more pre-kindergarten classes. "She was the only person that I was really interested in," James-Banks said.
Brown and Gansler have amassed more than $6 million each to spend on their races. Mizeur decided to accept public financing, which limits her ability to spend, but she has drawn support from some national advocacy groups with deep pockets.
The poll showed that Brown is popular among black voters, garnering 61 percent of their support statewide. If elected, he would be Maryland's first African-American governor. Brown also has strong margins in the Baltimore region and Washington suburbs, at 37 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
Brown and Mizeur are attracting voters under age 35, with 39 percent supporting Brown and 31 percent backing Mizeur. Raabe termed Gansler's lack of support among younger voters "a tremendous sign of weakness."
Gansler and Brown are running neck-and-neck among likely white voters, the poll shows, with Brown at 23 percent and Gansler 22 percent.
The early numbers could shift as more voters start paying closer attention to candidates and their policies. The June primary is earlier than in past years, when it was held in September. Political observers believe interest will pick up in the spring, when ad campaigns are expected to begin in earnest.
Among those waiting to make up her mind is Celestine Parker, 65, a retired preschool teacher who lives in Cherry Hill. Parker said she always votes, but it's too early for her to pay attention.
"I've heard of the Brown man because he's the lieutenant," she said in a telephone interview, her great-grandchildren laughing in the background. "And I know the attorney guy is running. I don't know much about any of them."
The botched rollout of the health care exchange will make her less likely to vote for Brown, she said, but Gansler's party controversy also troubled her. She'd never heard of Mizeur.
"I'll have to look them all over," Parker said.
Republicans voters are even more up in the air than the Democrats, the poll indicates, with 68 percent calling themselves undecided.
Glenn Daggs, 60, of North Laurel, a retired postal worker who closely follows national politics, said he knows little about the GOP candidates for governor and is undecided. The only name he recognized was Larry Hogan's.
"I remember his father, but I know nothing about him," Daggs said. Hogan's father, also named Larry, was a congressman and Prince George's County executive.
Paul Sobus, an 83-year-old retiree from Clarksville, supports Hogan largely because of his outspoken criticism of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits.
Hogan is "just the opposite of what we have in there now," Sobus said. "I don't know a whole lot about the other Republican candidates."
George Moore, 78, a retired farmer from Perry Hall, said he favors Craig because he likes what the Harford county executive has accomplished in that office. And "he's the only one I know anything about at all," Moore said.
But Moore, echoing sentiments expressed by other Republican voters interviewed, is pessimistic about the general election in Democratic Maryland. "I've about given up on anyone being a decent governor," he said.
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Raabe said the large number of undecided voters in both parties and the apparent softness of support among some of those who have made a choice means it's possible that one of the Democrats could shake up the race. And that it's not far-fetched to imagine that a Republican could win.
"There is this passive, unexcited atmosphere about this upcoming election," Raabe said. "That means that things could change dramatically if a candidate stumbles or if a candidate takes fire."
OpinionWorks of Annapolis conducted the poll for The Baltimore Sun. It surveyed 1,199 likely Maryland voters by telephone Feb. 8-12, including 500 likely Democratic primary voters and 499 likely Republican primary voters. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points for questions about each of the two primaries.