Monday, February 18, 2008

The Messages From Maryland and Virginia May Be Contradictory

By Stuart Rothenberg

There were four, not merely two, interesting and important election contests in Maryland on Tuesday, and the results offered somewhat contradictory storylines.

In the two most high-profile races, voters backed a moderately conservative Republican, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who often has worked with Democrats, and even liberals, to pass legislation that he thought addressed the nation’s ills, and a Democrat who rarely talks specifics and instead emphasizes hope, bringing people together and ending partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, in two key downballot contests, Republican and Democratic primary voters refused to renominate two incumbents whose crimes were that they weren’t ideologically pure enough, as evidenced by the fact that they sometimes voted with their colleagues across the aisle.

In Maryland, state Sen. Andy Harris (R) defeated nine-term incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) 43 percent to 33 percent in the state’s 1st Congressional district. State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R), a relatively late entry into the primary, came in third at 21 percent.

Gilchrest, who has had a number of primary opponents in the past but has always been able to win renomination with at least 60 percent of the vote, drew fewer than one in three GOP primary voters, a stunning rejection.

In Maryland’s 4th district, eight-term incumbent Rep. Albert Wynn (D) was treated equally roughly by primary voters. Challenger Donna Edwards, who came within 2,800 votes of denying him renomination in 2006, drew 60 percent of the vote to Wynn’s 36 percent.

Both Harris and Edwards ran heavily ideological primary campaigns and were banked by national interest groups.

Harris complained that Gilchrest wasn’t conservative enough, particularly on issues such as the war in Iraq, immigration and spending, and he was backed by both the anti-tax Club for Growth and the National Rifle Association.

Edwards complained that Wynn had too often supported President Bush’s positions, including on Iraq, the estate tax and energy policy, and she benefited from heavy advertising by the Service Employees International Union and, two liberal Democratic groups.

Admittedly, there are differences in the presidential and two Congressional elections in Maryland. McCain and Obama won statewide, while Gilchrest lost in one of only two solidly Republican districts in the state and Wynn was defeated in the most anti-Bush Congressional district in Maryland, based on 2004 presidential election results.

Still, the results suggest that the next president will have a more difficult job, not an easier one, bringing Americans — and Members of Congress — together next year. A House without Gilchrest and Wynn is a House with even fewer Members in the middle.

The Maryland and Virginia presidential results are noteworthy because they have changed the shape of the Democratic contest. In both states, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) improved his showing among some constituencies that in past primaries were carried overwhelmingly by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), including Democrats, downscale primary voters and even older voters.

Those results could well mean that Obama’s campaign has successfully changed the way Democratic voters are evaluating the race. But even if that isn’t really happening — even if Clinton voters aren’t defecting to Obama or undecided voters suddenly gravitating en masse to him — Obama could benefit from the mere perception that he is now the frontrunner in the race.

University of California at Berkeley political scientist Henry Brady, who has written extensively about elections and momentum, recently told me that he considers momentum to be the result of either “increasing name recognition and knowledge” and/or a candidate’s “increasing chance of winning the nomination.”

Brady, no doubt, is referring to the “bandwagon effect,” a well-established dynamic that describes the dynamic of voters gravitating to the frontrunner to be with a winner.

Obama’s clear-cut wins in Maryland and Virginia, coming after a series of less important primaries and caucuses on Feb. 9, are now earning him the label of favorite or frontrunner. Wednesday morning, a headline screamed “Obama Frontrunner.” NBC’s “First Read” began in much the same way, looking at the upcoming contests and suggesting that Clinton was the clear underdog.

This could make Obama appealing to more voters, and even to superdelegates, over the next few weeks.

And yet, prior to Tuesday, victories in the Democratic nomination contest didn’t produce any obvious “bandwagon effect.”

Obama won Iowa, but it didn’t give him “momentum” to New Hampshire. And Clinton didn’t have momentum out of New Hampshire and Nevada and into South Carolina. Obama didn’t have momentum out of South Carolina. And Super Tuesday didn’t give Clinton momentum into last weekend’s primaries and caucuses.

So far, voters in each state haven’t paid much attention to previous results. Instead, they’ve been making their own decisions.

Still, there is no doubt that Clinton needs to change the narrative that is developing that Obama has moved ahead of her and has a chance to sew up the nomination on March 4, in Texas and Ohio, two now-crucial states for the New Yorker.

But don’t yet fall into the trap of thinking the Democratic race already is over. This contest already has had plenty of surprises, and more could still be ahead.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 14, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.