Laslo Boyd on Bob Ehrlich: the rematch
As the former governor pointed out in his campaign kickoff, things are different from four years ago when he lost the gubernatorial election to Martin O'Malley. They are also different from eight years ago when Ehrlich defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Ehrlich believes he is running in a better political environment today than in 2006, but he still has some formidable obstacles to overcome.
Democrats hold a 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans in Maryland and have dominated statewide elections for decades. Maryland governors have enormous constitutional powers that normally translate into a significant advantage for any incumbent seeking re-election. In 2002, Ehrlich ran a smart campaign, but also benefited, as one of his top strategists told me, from everything breaking right for his campaign. The Perfect Confluence doesn't happen often in politics.
Can Ehrlich win in November? Elections are not determined by public opinion polls in the spring or by what columnists write. To be successful in the general election, Ehrlich will have to make the correct strategic choices, and he will have to get some breaks. In other words, the outcome will depend in part on things that he can control and in part on things that are beyond his control.
Let me discuss four of those factors, starting with the ones that are most subject to decisions made by Ehrlich and moving to the ones that will happen one way or the other, regardless of what he does.
As in his two previous campaigns, Bob Ehrlich gets to select his running mate. While I doubt that many voters make their decisions on whom to select for governor based upon the candidate for lieutenant governor, it's widely believed that the choice may show something about the candidate's judgment and also might appeal to particular groups of voters.
The conventional wisdom is that Ehrlich's pick in 2002, Michael Steele, helped him win that year. Does he have a similar political rabbit to pull out of his hat? Is there someone out there who will get him positive attention and will energize Republican voters?
One of the perpetual problems of the party is that it does not have a long bench, a ready list of well-known candidates. Ehrlich may need to get creative. Would a Democrat help him? Will he select a woman as he did in 2006? Is there someone who can appeal to moderates in Maryland?
This decision won't win him the election, but it may help on the margins. And he will need all the help he can get.
A second choice that is entirely in Ehrlich's hands is where he positions himself on the political spectrum. In 2002, he was widely seen by voters as a moderate Republican, and that probably helped him appeal to Democrats. My polling partner, Patrick Gonzales, constantly points out that a Republican has to get 30 percent of Democrats to win a statewide election in Maryland. Can Ehrlich find a way to reach that level?
At first glance, he already has made an enormous strategic miscalculation by his early cozying up to tea party groups in Maryland. This may be an example of trying to solidify his base, but, in doing so, he is seriously damaging his chances with independents and Democrats, without whom he cannot win.
A third factor that will impact the election outcome is turnout. Ehrlich, to win, needs the turnout in November to be lower than normal. The risk to him in energizing his base is that the Democratic base also will turn out. His best hope is for Democrats to not care about the race or to be overconfident. Achieving either of those results is probably not something over which Ehrlich has much control, other than running a really dull campaign.
On the other hand, don't be too surprised if his campaign issues all sorts of challenges to Maryland's early-voting procedures, as well as to voter registration lists. The numbers are against him, and anything he can do to lessen the long odds will increases his chances of winning.
Finally, and more important than any of the factors mentioned up to now, will be the condition of Maryland's economy as we get closer to the election. Incumbents either get credit or blame depending on how the economy is doing, and that fact alone is determinant one in many elections. That puts candidate Ehrlich in the somewhat awkward position of needing to hope that Maryland's economy is really weak in the fall; the more robust the economy, the less robust Ehrlich's chances of winning.
In October, if the job picture is improving and there are signs that state revenues are returning to pre-recession levels, Ehrlich may be nearly out of options. He can turn to a heavily negative campaign in hopes of changing the subject, or he can see if Goldman Sachs is willing, for a fee, to assist his campaign by trying to ruin the Maryland economy. They do have some experience in that field.
Bob Ehrlich, when he announced his candidacy, knew that he had an uphill battle. He's got nearly six months to discover whether or not it was an impossible dream.
Laslo Boyd is a partner at Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. He also teaches courses at both Towson University and the University of Baltimore. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.