Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown has staked out a sizable lead in the Democratic contest for governor, but the primary race is far from decided as many voters have yet to pick a candidate, according to a new opinion poll for The Baltimore Sun.
Bolstered by overwhelming support from African-Americans statewide and voters in his home county of Prince George's, Brown is 21 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, the poll indicates.
But 40 percent of likely Democratic voters in Maryland are still undecided four months before the June 24 primary, the poll found. The Republican contest is even more wide open, with two-thirds of likely voters surveyed saying they have no favorite in the race.
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The lack of enthusiasm in both parties leaves room for another candidate to jump in before next week's filing deadline, and for those who are trailing to make up ground.
"The primary is fast approaching, with voters who are not really tuned in. And those who are tuned in are not very excited about the choices that they're being offered," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis polling firm that conducted the telephone survey for The Sun. "That's really a formula for a potential surprise."
The poll indicates that 35 percent of likely Democratic voters support Brown, 14 percent back Gansler and 10 percent Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County. The survey has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
In the Republican primary, Larry Hogan, a former Ehrlich administration official who entered the race last month, leads with 13 percent, the poll shows, and Harford County Executive David R. Craig garnered 7 percent after seven months of campaigning. Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County has 6 percent and Charles County business executive Charles Lollar 5 percent.
John Bushrod, a Prince George's County Democrat, says he will be an informed voter by the time the primary arrives but can't distinguish one candidate from another now. "Do you know who is running? Could you send me some information?" asked Bushrod, 67, who participated in the survey and agreed to be interviewed later by a reporter. "This is the first time I heard anything about it, or thought about it."
For now, William "Ban" Pratt, 45, of Baltimore supports Brown, but he said that is primarily because Brown is the only candidate he recognizes. "When it's six weeks before it's time to vote, I'll read up," Pratt said. "That's what I intend to do."
Even though a large number of voters share a wait-and-see approach, the negative publicity around two Democratic candidates has had some impact.
Brown, who was the governor's point man on the development of Maryland's health exchange, appears to have weathered its troubled launch better than Gansler has overcome negative news media attention.
About 25 percent of the voters surveyed said they were less likely to vote for Brown because of the health exchange's widespread problems. A larger number — 47 percent — said they were less likely to vote for Gansler after revelations that he was present at a teen party where there appeared to be underage drinking.
Gansler has hammered Brown about failed leadership in the rollout of the state health exchange. Brown and Mizeur have largely declined to comment on Gansler's troubles.
Raabe said Democratic primary voters in Maryland support the federal Affordable Care Act and are more likely to forgive Brown for problems with its implementation. The party episode, by contrast, reflects on Gansler's character, he said.
Jennifer Gaegler, 39, a Gansler supporter from Montgomery County who participated in the survey, said she watched friends and neighbors struggle to get health care through the exchange.
"It wasn't handled very well and it worries me," Gaegler said. "If that was not handled well, how will other big issues will be handled?"
Yonette Exeter of Gaithersburg, who supports Brown, said she was turned off by Gansler's explanation that he didn't have a responsibility to shut down the party, a statement the attorney general later revised.
"If you're an adult, you're supposed to be setting an example," said Exeter, 44. "You're going to say one thing as a politician and when you're caught with your hand in the cookie jar, then you say something else?"
The poll indicates the party issue matters more to women, with 51 percent of female respondents saying they are less likely to vote for Gansler because of it.