ANNAPOLIS – A down-to-the-wire presidential race that pundits and polls predict will be the closest in 40 years has produced a flood of last-minute Maryland voter registrations, leaving elections officials predicting a record turnout Tuesday.
“It looks like turnout will be pretty high, probably about 80 percent of registered voters,” said Linda Lamone, the state administrator of elections. “It always is in a contested presidential election.”
In 1992, when then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George Bush in a close race, turnout in Maryland topped 80 percent. But in 1996, when Clinton trounced former Sen. Bob Dole in a race that seemed a foregone conclusion by Election Day, only 70 percent of registered Marylanders cast a ballot.
About half of all Maryland residents register to vote.
But for all the Election Day hullabaloo and last-minute registration, individual Maryland voters have little chance of actually influencing the presidential outcome Tuesday.
Though the preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs along suburban roads suggest the Texas governor has a shot at winning the popular vote in Maryland — where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1 — a late-October poll of Maryland voters tells a different story. The poll of 627 self-identified likely voters, conducted by Annapolis-based Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications, gave Gore a 52-38 percent advantage over Bush, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Even if Bush was within striking distance, Maryland’s measly 10 Electoral College votes play little role in determining the next president when matched against a state like California, with 54 votes. A candidate needs 270 votes to win the White House.
Gore has not campaigned in Maryland since September, while Bush hasn’t swung through since July.
Few surprises are expected in Maryland’s congressional races. The four Republican and four Democratic representatives and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D- Baltimore, are expected to retain their seats, election watchers say.
With predictable statewide congressional races, Maryland safely in Gore’s corner, and the state’s electoral votes having only a marginal effect on the outcome nationwide, why the high level of interest among registered voters?
Voters aren’t walking computers, said Peter Francia, a research fellow in the University of Maryland College Park Department of Government and Politics.
“I don’t think voters really make all those calculations when they decide to vote,” he said. “It may not be that close in Maryland, but the fact that the race between Bush and Gore is so close nationwide makes people want to get involved.”
Maryland may also be benefiting from the emphasis Bush and Gore are putting on the neighboring states of Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“There is some media spillover for the people who live near those states,” Francia said.
In Maryland, the Democratic and Republican parties are working diligently in the final days of campaign 2000 to boost turnout: staging bus tours, bringing in celebrity politicians to stump, holding rallies and staffing phone banks.
While both party’s efforts are similar, the underlying reasons are not.
“We’re revving up our efforts to take it through to 2002,” said Paul Ellington, executive director of the state GOP. “We believe in incrementalism. We know it won’t happen overnight. We have to lay the groundwork.”
Democrats are striving to maintain their voter registration dominance.
“Why let (the Republicans) get a toehold?” asked Rob Johnson, Ellington’s Democratic counterpart. “They’re chomping at the bit to win a statewide election. As long as they can’t do that, they’re nowhere.”
State Democrats also worry about surprises — like the 1988 race between Bush’s father, George, and Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Dukakis lost Maryland, a reliable Democratic state, by 50,000 votes.
“There’s a sense among Democratic voters that if they don’t show up it will be deja vu all over again,” Francia said.
Johnson agreed, saying Democrats know if they don’t push party voters to the polls there could be another 1988.
“We’re not about to let that happen,” he said.