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Voter calculus changes in year of uncertainty

Everyone in politics says Election 2010 is all about turnout and excitement. If you’ve got the latter, the former might take care of itself.

Might is the operative word. Forewarned by the upheaval in other states, prudent campaigns are furiously beating the bushes on behalf of embattled incumbents.

The tea party is said to be this year’s turnout engine. Its adherents are expected to show up without being asked. Anger, however defined, may drive them to the polls.

Republicans hope they can ride the insurgent movement’s coattails even as they worry about some of the characters with the coats.

Democrats in Maryland, meanwhile, will do turnout the old-fashioned way. They hope their sophisticated use of voter histories, their great advantage in voter registration and their usual avalanche of get-out-the-vote literature won’t be swept away in the tea party tide.

“We’ve known for a long time that turnout is going to be key in this election and the other thing we know is that the national trend, the national mood in this election cycle, has favored the Republican candidates,” says the Democratic Party’s Maggie McIntosh.

There’s little if any evidence that the tea party will pull off surprises in Maryland, one of the bluest of blue states. At the same time, the upstart party’s triumphs tend to become manifest near the end of campaigns when incumbent targets come into focus and voters start paying attention.

The O’Donnell factor

Democrats have worried that Gov. Martin O’Malley might be the most vulnerable of their incumbents. His Republican opponent, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., might be able to capture some of the tea party energy.

But concern doesn’t end there for the Democrats.

Could Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a prohibitive favorite by most measures, lose to a way-below-the-radar challenger like Dr. Eric Wargotz, a Queen Anne’s County commissioner?

Well, who had ever heard of Christine O’Donnell before she became the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Delaware? She beat the moderate Rep. Mike Castle, a former governor and seven-term congressman.

O’Donnell’s nomination has been seen as the end of GOP hopes for taking control of the U.S. Senate. She’s had to distance herself from her own record: strong past criticism of masturbation, misstatements about her education, her personal financial trials, even interest in witchcraft, to name a view.

Any one of these aspects might have been enough to sink a campaign in ordinary times, but they’ve been a fundraising magnet for O’Donnell. Welcome to Campaign 2010.

A certain, shall we say, idiosyncratic edge may actually help in these times, making the distinction between challenger and incumbent giddily clearer.

Some think (wishfully, no doubt) that O’Donnell’s success may be the political watershed, a point at which voters say, “Wait a minute. We’re talking about governor or congressman or U.S. senator.”

Early-voting strategy

Whatever is happening “out there,” Democrats say they are ready to fight back with a tour de force display of getting the faithful to the polls.

Democrats like McIntosh, a ranking member of the Maryland House of Delegates, are doing all they can to win this election by outworking their opponents. McIntosh runs what Democrats call their coordinated campaign, orchestrating candidates, volunteers, and money and get-out-the-vote experience.

The headquarters on Boston Street in Baltimore serves as a transshipment point for mailers geared to virtually every point on the compass. Republicans, these documents declare, are bent on turning back the clock — “Stop Them. Vote Early. VOTE DEMOCRAT.”

“Vote Early” is one of the keys. One of the reminders arrives on 12×8-inch placard featuring a lovely child standing at a blackboard where the message “Vote Early” is spelled out clearly (it’s actually a soothing green board in the mailer). “Use your early vote to protect our schools,” it says on the back.

Early voting, many are saying, could be a game changer. In a sense, it means there will be seven election days — six of them before the official Nov. 2 balloting.

Democrats, the most practiced players with the most depth, could have a big advantage here. Board of Election data allow a pinpointing of each voter’s history, showing who always votes (and needs no encouraging) and those upon whom the party might productively lavish its attention.

Calculations of this sort, refined over many election cycles, could make the difference in a political year full of uncertainty.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is [email protected]