As Gov. Martin O'Malley seeks to build support for a potential presidential campaign, a new poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun shows enthusiasm among voters in his home state is conspicuously low — and might be slipping.
Despite high-profile victories in Annapolis and a growing national buzz about his future, nearly six in 10 Maryland voters said they would not back the governor if he decides to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, while 14 percent said they would.
The lackluster showing for O'Malley in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than a 2-1 margin is likely a reflection of the broader political dynamic the governor has wrestled with for years. Everyone — even those who might otherwise support O'Malley — is waiting for Hillary Clinton.
"I don't dislike him or anything like that; I just don't think he's presidential," said Elizabeth Rye, a 79-year-old Democrat from Bel Air. "If Hillary doesn't run, then that would be a different story. I'd have to see who else is running."
Nine percent of voters polled said they wanted to see who else will run before committing to a candidate more than a year out from the first presidential primaries. Nearly two in 10 said they weren't sure or refused to answer.
O'Malley, 51, has traveled extensively in recent months to campaign for congressional and gubernatorial candidates running in the midterm elections and also to lay the groundwork for his own campaign. He was in Iowa over the weekend, for instance, stumping in the first-in-the-nation nominating state for the fourth time this year.
Many of the governor's policies have been the focus of critical television advertisements this year, which could be weakening his support at home. Opponents of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is running to replace O'Malley, have repeatedly called attention to some of the administration's less popular decisions, such as to increase taxes.
Yet Maryland voters have long viewed an O'Malley presidential candidacy skeptically. Two years ago, 21 percent of state voters said they would back him in a White House bid, 7 points better than in the new poll. In February, Clinton outpolled O'Malley nearly 10-1 among state Democrats, another Sun poll found.
"Democrats in Maryland, like other states, are expecting and wanting a Hillary candidacy," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the polls for The Sun. "That works against anybody who is not Hillary."
But political analysts warned against drawing conclusions from the results. For one thing, the survey polled both Democrats and Republicans, and O'Malley is unlikely to have much crossover appeal with GOP voters. It may also be the case that more voters will believe in his campaign when and if it fully gets underway, they said.
"At this stage, it doesn't really matter what people think. It matters what the activists and the journalists and the donors think," said Dartmouth College political scientist Linda L. Fowler. "It's pretty early to make much of this."
On the other hand, she said, those who watch presidential politics closely are likely to notice if it appears a candidate might struggle to carry his own state.
"If I were a donor and saw that poll I would think, 'Gee, I wonder what that's about,'" Fowler said. "Maybe not a red flag, but it would raise a question in my mind."
There are other warning signs for O'Malley in Maryland. The Sun poll showed 48 percent of voters feel the state is on the wrong track, while 44 percent think it is going in the right direction. And a survey this month for The Washington Post suggested O'Malley's approval rating dropped 13 points since February to 41 percent.
Two years before he won the 2000 presidential election, 55 percent of voters in Texas said they would support then-Gov. George W. Bush's national aspirations, a poll by The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle found at the time. Sen. John McCain had support from 27 percent of Arizona Republicans, a plurality, according to an Arizona State University poll conducted a year before the 2008 presidential election.
Not surprisingly, O'Malley performed far better among Democrats, 21 percent of whom said they would support him for president compared with only 1 percent of Republicans. His numbers were stronger in Baltimore City and Prince George's County than in the rest of the state.
A plurality of African-American voters — 31 percent — said they would support him.
Also telling, the governor had a stronger showing among young voters. A quarter of respondents under 35 said they would support him compared with 53 percent who said they would not. O'Malley frequently talks about the young generation of voters and a "new way of leadership" — concepts some have read as an attempt at drawing a distinction between himself and the Clintons.
Nicole Watkins, a 34-year-old teacher who is taking time off from work to raise children, said she would support O'Malley because of his emphasis on education. The governor never misses a chance to point to the state's investments in public education as well as independent reports that rank Maryland's schools as the best in the nation.
"To me, it's a very important platform," said Watkins, who lives in Ridgely in Caroline County. "It's important to me that I have someone in the White House or the governor's mansion who supports teachers and education."
An O'Malley spokeswoman declined to comment on the poll results.
Other polls show O'Malley has made little headway in name recognition let alone support in early primary states, despite repeated visits. He has won the support of just 3 percent of Democratic voters in New Hampshire compared with 58 percent for Clinton, according to a University of New Hampshire survey published last week.
Only 17 percent of voters in that poll said they had definitely made up their mind.
Analysts said O'Malley isn't going after voters at this early stage but is rather building a fundraising operation and relationships with other Democrats that could be helpful if he ultimately decides to run. And those chits could still prove valuable in future elections if he bows out — or loses to — Clinton this time.
"Nobody's paying attention to 2016 yet. It's not even in their minds," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center. "People don't think of him as a presidential candidate because, frankly, there's no campaign or anything going on yet."
About this poll
The poll was conducted for The Baltimore Sun by OpinionWorks of Annapolis. It is based on interviews with 800 likely Maryland voters conducted by telephone, both land-line and cellular, Oct. 4 to Oct. 8. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points. Names were drawn from voter files provided by the Maryland State Board of Elections. Voters were screened to assure that they plan to vote in the Nov. 4 election.