By Liz Boch and Catherine Matacic
WASHINGTON – After millions of dollars and weeks of intensive campaigning, the candidates Maryland’s 2nd and 8th congressional district are still separated by only razor-thin margins, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The poll, taken last week by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc., said Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, is leading state Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Montgomery, by only 2 percentage points in the 8th District.
It also showed Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, ahead of former Republican congresswoman Helen Bentley, 47 to 43 percent, in the 2nd District.
The margin of error for both races was plus or minus 5.5 percent.
“It’s unusual to have even one close congressional race, but everyone knew these would be razor-thin,” said American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman.
Morella, a 16-year incumbent in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1, leads Van Hollen 44 to 42 percent. A Potomac Inc. poll in September had him winning 46 to 43 percent.
“This is one of those campaigns where everything has the potential to make the difference,” said Morella’s campaign manger Tony Caligiuri, who always expected the race to run “right down to the wire.”
But the number of people who have an unfavorable perception of Morella has jumped from 8 percent in July to 20 percent in the new poll. It comes as Morella, who has never before mentioned an opponent in campaign ad, has launched ads pegging Van Hollen as a closet Republican and a spendthrift.
Her ratings are “another sign that maybe her negative campaign and negative tactics have placed a bad taste in voters’ mouths,” Van Hollen campaign spokesman Afshin Mohamadi said.
Negative campaign ads also sprang up in the 2nd District, where Bentley ran ads condemning Ruppersberger’s actions as county executive. Her campaign said the “contrasting” ads were a response to a Maryland Democratic Party ad portraying Bentley’s environmental record as unclean.
Frank DeFilippo, a political analyst for WBAL radio, said Ruppersberger’s ads probably gave him a slight bump in the poll, but Bentley’s started too late affect the latest survey.
“These polls are going to go up and down because they’re pounding each other now,” DeFilippo said. “It’s pretty close. He’s mathematically ahead, but consider the margin of error.”
Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, said the poll should provide only marginal relief to Ruppersberger.
“There’s a long way to go,” Vatz said. “I would think in my heart of hearts that, A) I’d be a little happier if I were Ruppersberger and B) a little sad if I were Bentley. But beyond that, neither of them better relax.”
Ruppersberger campaign officials said they were not surprised by the recent numbers.
“We felt momentum building on the street for weeks and this poll just proves what we’ve been feeling,” said Rick Binetti, a Ruppersberger spokesman.
Both DeFilippo and Vatz said the candidates should focus on the 10 percent of undecided voters in the new poll and not count on the numbers staying where they are.
“You have votes that could change at any moment,” Vatz said.
In the 8th District, those votes are overwhelmingly from African Americans, with 32 percent undecided.
“That’s the explosive number in here,” said Lichtman, who added that most of those voters probably came from Prince George’s County, a new part of the district where neither candidate has high name recognition.
“When African Americans get in the polling booth, I bet 4-to-1 they’re going to vote Democratic,” a boon for Van Hollen, he said.
Undecided voters in the 2nd District are in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, said University of Maryland Baltimore County political science professor Tom Schaller, because Harford County is “Bentley country” and Baltimore City is heavily Democratic.
Outside the undecided vote, analysts said the poll reveals little about two races that have been so close since the primary election.
“Polls are self-fulfilling prophecies,” DeFilippo said. “This stuff is for political junkies, but they do have some impact because people want to be with a winner. At this point, this is to be expected.”