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As Maryland’s state elections begin warming up we’re entering the phony opinion survey season when candidates release so-called “polls” they’ve commissioned showing “political momentum.” Such polls should be taken with large grains of salt.

That’s why it’s helpful when a legitimate, independent polling service like Gonzales Research and Marketing gives us some reliable insight into the voters’ mood.

Last week Gonzales released its poll taken during the first two weeks of October surveying a cross section of voters demographically weighted to reflect who shows up on Election Day. Here are the highlights:

Most people are not yet paying attention to a primary election that’s still eight months away. When asked to judge the two Democratic front-runners for governor, 56 percent of Democratic voters were either “neutral” or didn’t recognize Anthony Brown and 72 percent were the same about Doug Gansler. A third candidate, Heather Mizeur, was unknown to 79 percent of Maryland Democrats.

Conversely, Maryland voters widely recognize Gov. Martin O’Malley and have no reluctance judging his job performance.

Among all voters, O’Malley’s favorable is 47.7 percent, his unfavorable is 48.1 percent, his worst rating since January 2008 (49 percent), just after he engineered the biggest tax hike in state history. O’Malley’s rating is far behind President Obama, who gets a 58 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable in the same poll.

Compared to a January 2013 Gonzales poll, O’Malley’s positives are down 6 points while his negatives are up 7 points among all voters. But the big story is the intensity of O’Malley’s negatives.

Only 19 percent of Maryland voters “strongly approve” of O’Malley, while 34 percent “strongly disapprove” (compared to 25 percent strong approval and 24 percent strong disapproval in January 2013).

The intensity shift is dramatic among independent voters: “strong approval” dropped from 25 percent to 15 percent while “strong disapproval” increased from 23 percent to 29 percent over the past eight months. And it’s even more pronounced among African-American voters, where, between January and October, “strong approval” dropped from 47 percent to 28 percent and “strong disapproval” hiked from 4 percent to 17 percent.

So what’s driving O’Malley’s bad showing, and how does it impact this election, where O’Malley is not a candidate but where both the primary and general elections will likely be referendums on the O’Malley record?

Patrick Gonzales thinks O’Malley’s problem is the same as back in 2008 — taxes. According to the poll, the 83 percent gas tax hike O’Malley pushed through the legislature remains vastly unpopular: 22 percent favorable, 76 percent unfavorable (with 59 percent “strongly opposed”). And you wonder why Gansler is running against the gas tax?

Add to this the infamous “rain tax” and O’Malley’s 38 other taxes and fees, which amount to $3.1 billion a year in new taxes since O’Malley became governor.

O’Malley’s quixotic White House bid appears unpopular as well. When Gonzales asked Maryland voters back in January if O’Malley should run for president, only 25 percent said “yes,” while 58 percent said “no.” O’Malley ignored them, and now, apparently, many jilted Marylanders believe O’Malley cares more about his career than about them.

So, does this bode poorly for Brown, O’Malley’s lieutenant governor, who is running as O’Malley’s protege against Gansler, the O’Malley/Brown alternative?

No, because only Democratic voters will decide the Brown vs. Gansler primary and, among Dems, O’Malley remains popular (favorable 67 percent, unfavorable 29 percent). True, among Democratic voters O’Malley’s favorable is down 6 points and his unfavorable is up 9 points, but running against the O’Malley record in a Democratic primary is uphill for Gansler.

Things might be different for Brown in the general election against an attractive Republican. But this is where Brown’s race — African American — becomes such a huge factor.

In 2002, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had everything going for her: first woman governor, uncontested primary, overwhelming party and media support. But her campaign lapses and, more importantly, voter animosity against Parris Glendening, the incumbent governor, cost her the election.

Like KKT, Brown is battling voter fatigue, his boss’s declining popularity and, in addition, a strong primary opponent. But running as Maryland’s first African-American governor in a state that’s 30 percent African American is Brown’s ace in the hole. Or, put it this way; if Brown was white, his prospects would look a whole lot more like KKT’s.

One possible game changer in this nascent governor’s race is Obamacare. O’Malley put Brown in charge of designing and masterminding Maryland’s Obamacare program. It’s Brown’s signature accomplishment as lieutenant governor, and if it implodes, so does Brown.

The Gonzales poll, taken during the first days of the Obamacare rollout, shows wide popularity: 57 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable. But will these numbers change if the “glitches caused by the website’s early popularity” prove systemic and if the entire program goes into a “death spiral”?

As Maryland’s elections unfold we’ll depend on Gonzales to keep us up to date on who’s happy, who’s angry and why.

Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette.

His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is blairleeiv@gmail.com.