By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – Political observers agree that the Maryland Republican Party’s experiment with an open primary had little effect on Tuesday’s election. Whether that means the experiment succeeded or failed, depends on who’s talking.
“It didn’t upset that apple cart enough to make the party leadership cringe and rethink it,” said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research.
But Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said that Republicans are not likely to repeat their open primary experiment for just that reason — there is no indication that it had a tremendous payoff.
“The Republicans did not get an infusion of new people, so there will be a lot less support,” to continue the open primary, Uslaner said.
The GOP voted last year to open this year’s primary to Maryland independents, in an effort to reach out to those voters in the heavily Democratic state. Maryland Democrats did not open their primary, and Tuesday’s Democratic elections were open only to registered members of that party.
The Republican party said it would review the results of this election before deciding whether to keep its primaries open in the future or revert to the old, Republicans-only system.
State election officials said Wednesday that the numbers of independents who took advantage of the open Republican primary would not be available for at least a week. But Coker said that, based on exit polls, only 10 percent of the voters who turned out Tuesday were independents.
Carol Arscott, of Gonzales/Arscott Research, said it was clear from the overall turnout that the open primary did not set the electorate on fire.
“Only a third of the registered votes turned out, which is no larger than normal,” Arscott said. “I don’t think it did any harm and it may have done a little bit of good.”
Coker and Arscott agreed that the open primary did not attract moderates in Maryland who could boost the presidential bid of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as they did in other states.
“We didn’t think the independent vote would work for McCain here like it did in other states because there was not history here and that was not part of our political culture,” Arscott said.
Coker said McCain, who lost to Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 20 percentage points in Maryland, could have turned out more independents and made a bigger impact if he had put more effort into the state.
“When it became evident that McCain was not going to win in Maryland the independents did not come and vote,” Coker said. “A strong McCain effort could have made it (the independent vote) up to 15 or 20 percent of the electorate.”
Former GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey, who pushed for the open primary, said she was not surprised by the relatively low number of independents who turned out.
“I think because independents don’t have a history of voting in primaries they may not have much interest,” Sauerbrey said. “Many of them are not really interested in politics and many of them are anti-establishment.”
But Sauerbrey said the open primary was still an important first step toward the larger goal of bringing independents into the Republican fold.
“I think the next step for the Republican Party is to identify who those people are and welcome them to become Republicans,” she said. “I think our goal as Republicans is to find independents who share our values.”
Whether the party continues with open primaries will depend on responses it gets from independents, she said, as it tries to contact them and persuade them to convert.
“I think we need to evaluate what the benefits are to the party as we have a chance to contact independents to see if they are indeed interested in voting for Republicans in the fall,” Sauerbrey said.
But Uslaner said that next step, of contacting independents who voted in the primary, could erase any goodwill that independents might have developed as a result of the open primary.
“If they (independents) view this an intrusion of their privacy it could backfire on the Republican Party,” he said.
Arscott said the open primary was a desperation move by the Maryland Republican Party, long outnumbered by Democrats in the state. But she said the gimmick brought enough attention to the GOP that, “My guess is that Democrats will look to do it in four years time, too.”
Not likely, said the executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
“Our system isn’t broken — it works fine,” said Rob Johnson, the director. “So if it is not broken don’t fix it.”