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Presidential Elections: Maryland And Anne Arundel County

Dan Nataf
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September 10, 2015

By Dan Nataf
Center for the Study of Local Issues

As we watch the field of presidential candidates take shape, the national media is abuzz with speculation — will Trump triumph or will Bush make it a trifecta for his family? Will Hillary Clinton be the inevitable Democratic candidate, or does Bernie Sanders stand a chance of bypassing her on the left?

Whoever is the winner of each party’s primary, the general election will probably see a close election driven by the attractiveness of each candidate, the effectiveness of their campaigns, and most of all, the propensity for voters to align with their party identification. A small percentage of voters at play nationally will determine the final outcome.

In Maryland, presidential elections until 1992 featured a lot of partisan swing. Democrats won in 1960, 1964, 1968, 1976 and 1980, but with the exception of 1964 — when Lyndon B. Johnson won by 31 percentage points — the average margin of victory was only 4.5 percentage points. Republican victories in 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1972 were more lopsided, with the average being 14.2 percentage points. While Republican candidates won in 1984 and 1988, the gap was only 4 percentage points.

By 1992, a new pattern of Democratic dominance of presidential elections emerged. Democrats won in each election (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012) by sizable margins. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s average margin of victory over Republican candidates was 15 percentage points, with third-party candidates (especially Ross Perot) possibly reducing Republican vote totals during both elections won by Clinton.

Democrats lost the presidency in 2000 and 2004, but in Maryland they won by large margins both years (16 and 13 percent) — or roughly equal to Clinton’s margins of victory but with a much smaller third-party effect each year.

The two elections won by Barack Obama created the largest postwar chasms between Democrats and Republicans with a 26-point gap between the two parties in both 2008 and 2012. Obama’s elections generated a huge vote count for his candidacy (1,629,467 and 1,677,844), far greater than any Democrat had previously won (Kerry in 2004 garnered 1,334,493 votes). By contrast, the largest vote obtained by a Republican was 1,024,703 by George W. Bush in 2004.

Did Republican Larry Hogan’s victory over Democrat Anthony Brown in 2012 portend a crack in the armor of Democratic hegemony that might extend to the presidential election cycle? While Hogan’s victory clearly showed that Democrats didn’t have an iron grip upon the governor’s seat, it was based on the dynamics of an apathetic public. Anthony Brown obtained 818,890 votes, only 49 percent of Obama’s 2012 vote and 78 percent of Martin O’Malley’s 2010 total (1,044,961). Hogan obtained 884,400 votes, which was a smaller percentage than Bob Ehrlich obtained in 2002 (879,592) when there were a smaller number of Republican voters.
Turnout statewide was only 47 percent versus 74 percent in 2012. Unless Hogan’s success was a forerunner of a deep and enduring malaise among Maryland’s Democratic voters, it seems reasonable to assume that that the Democratic candidate will win by a range of 13 to 26 points over the Republican candidate, roughly the margin of victory since 1992.

To anticipate how the county might vote in 2016, it is useful to review how the county has voted in past presidential elections. Generally, Anne Arundel County has leaned Republican back to 1948, when Thomas Dewey received more than 2,000 more votes than Harry Truman. In 1960, John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by 4,532 votes (7 percentage points). Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson handily beat Barry Goldwater by 20 percentage points in 1964.

However, from 1968 through 1992, Republican candidates won convincingly in Anne Arundel County. For example, Reagan’s two election wins averaged a 24-point differential over Democrats Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. By 1992, Bill Clinton narrowed the margin of defeat from 28 points (George H.W. Bush’s margin over Michael Dukakis in 1988) to only 8.6 points, which was narrowed further in 1996 to 7.3 points. George W. Bush maintained a Republican advantage of 7.5 in 2000 and 12.6 points in 2000 and 2004. From 1992 to 2004, the average Republican advantage was 9 points.

When Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic candidate in 2008, he had a formidable history of Democratic defeats in Anne Arundel County to confront. He needed only to beat the 1992-2004 average (or lose by fewer than 11,000 votes as Clinton accomplished in 1996) to show a relative “win” in the county.

In 2008, Obama did lose the race in the county but only by 1.8 points. While this might be seen as an outlier result — a product of the special circumstances surrounding the election of America’s first African-American president — the results in 2012 were even more surprising. Rather than losing by 4,667 votes as he had four years earlier, Obama narrowed the gap with Republican candidate Mitt Romney to only less than a single percentage point — or 197 votes.

So what does this imply for the 2016 elections in Anne Arundel County? One critical factor will be voter turnout by party voters. Since 1988, Republican turnout has been greater than Democratic turnout in five out of seven presidential elections. The average difference has been relatively small — less than one percent (about 79 versus 80 percent). Turnout for unaffiliated voters has been much lower — 70 percent.

When looking at the county’s party registration totals as of the last gubernatorial elections in 2014, there were 147,091 Democrats (42.1 percent), 123,998 Republicans (35.5 percent) and 28,330 (21.6 percent) unaffiliated voters. Clearly, Democrats start with a registration advantage over Republicans.

For Mitt Romney to obtain a narrow victory in 2012 (126,832 versus 126,635 votes), he needed to obtain more than those Republicans who turned out (98,165) by attracting those registered as Democrats or unaffiliated/third party voters. In a survey conducted in October 2012, the Center for the Study of Local Issues estimated that about 92 percent of Republicans would cast their votes for Romney and that 58 percent of unaffiliated/third-party voters would do the same. The Democratic defection rate was higher (only 86 percent of Democrats would vote for Obama) and just 42 percent of unaffiliated/third-party voters would vote for Obama. This would explain why Obama’s total vote (126,635) was only modestly higher than the total number of voting Democrats (115,523).

As we look to 2016, the decisive elements determining the winner in Anne Arundel County will be:

  • The party registration totals, which have held steady with a 5- to 6-point Democratic advantage
  • Turnout, with the key question being whether Republicans will be able to increase their turnout advantage beyond the slim one-point advantage in presidential elections, perhaps coming closer to the huge turnout advantage enjoyed by Larry Hogan in 2014 when the county’s Republican turnout was a full 11 points higher than Democrats
  • Defections by voters from their party registration — with the six-point Republican advantage seen in 2012 possibly providing a framework for 2016
  • The role of unaffiliated voters who tend to break to the Republican side. Higher turnout among them probably works to the advantage of the Republican candidate. In 2014, unaffiliated voters had very low turnout (38 percent) compared with their 2012 turnout (65 percent). Higher turnout could boost the chances of the

Republican candidate and work to the disadvantage of the Democratic one.

Recent history suggests that presidential elections will continue to be much more closely divided in Anne Arundel County than gubernatorial ones, which are usually lopsided Republican victories. If the Clinton pattern resurrects itself, Democrats will win the state but lose the county by 7-10 points. Conversely, the Obama pattern portends a much closer race. Will the possibility of having a female candidate energize Democratic voters as much as an African-American presidential candidate did in 2008 and 2012?

On the Republican side, the large number of candidates in the primaries may produce a divisive process and leave the winning nominee politically weakened. This might affect Republican voters by depressing turnout and increasing defections. Unaffiliated voters may not tilt as much to the Republican side, or perhaps, not turnout in large numbers.

It is still early in the election cycle, but knowing the key elements — turnout, defections and the lean of unaffiliated voters — make it interesting to observe the competition among candidates in both parties and anticipate the impact upon the outcome in Anne Arundel County.

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