Richard J. Cross, III: The Gonzales Poll Raises More Questions than Answers

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For political junkies, a new poll is like encountering a shiny wrapped present waiting for you under the Christmas tree. All you want to do is dig into it in order to get to what’s hidden inside.

But polling and opening a wrapped present are both “in the moment” activities. The memory of opening it may ultimately eclipse the importance of whatever happens to be there.

With the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly in full swing and the Iowa caucuses less than two weeks away, the number of new polls offering new insight into different aspects of the political process can be expected to grow.

This is good news for people like me, who regard polling data with the same degree of game day excitement as sports fans do statistics.

At the same time, however, even a perfectly executed poll fielded by a reputable polling firm is only a snapshot. Invariably, once you’re done absorbing the results of one poll, you find yourself craving the next one.

And, most often, polls leave you with more questions than answers.

So, when I see that a new WMUR/CNN poll shows Senator Bernie Sanders now beating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by nearly a two to one margin in New Hampshire (60% - 33%), I wondered how the race for the Democratic nomination in the Granite State suddenly got so lopsided.

Recent polls had showed northeasterner Sanders up, but by a more modest margin. Are reports of an impending Clinton implosion correct, or is this merely evidence of an electorate whose soft loyalties may shift yet again prior to Election Day?

Reviewing the annual Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll into Maryland politics left me with a whole different set of questions.

The Gonzales poll found that Governor Hogan has achieved a stratospheric 67 percent approval rating – higher than the number recorded in the last recent Baltimore Sun – University of Maryland poll (63 percent), and the best numbers achieved by former Governors Bob Ehrlich (57 percent) and Martin O’Malley (58 percent) during their own times in office.

So, are these numbers sustainable for Hogan, and can the Democrats do anything to reassert themselves from an agenda-setting standpoint?

The governor’s soaring approval numbers can be attributed to the connection he managed to establish through his battle with cancer, the manner in which he handled the Freddie Gray riots, meaningful policy achievements (such as repeal of the so-called “rain tax” and reducing tolls), citizens’ belief that the state is on the “right track” versus the “wrong track” (60 to 22 percent), and the absence of a consensus Democratic alternative to serve as the coherent voice of the loyal opposition.

Simply put, the governor was presented with challenges and opportunities in 2015, and he managed them with demonstrated political skill. Whether his high approval numbers endure now depends on future legislative actions, the outcome of the presidential race (having a Democratic president in the White House in 2018 could aid his reelection if that president encounters the traditional midterm jinx), emergent developments, and other event-driven factors.

As for the Democrats’ ability to regain the spotlight from the governor, so far the attack stances they have taken – such as criticizing Hogan’s decisions to pull the plug on the Red Line and partially fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) – have proven to be political losers.

My guess is that attacking Hogan for vetoing pro-marijuana paraphernalia legislation with the support of law enforcement, as Senator Bobby Zirkin (D-11th) and other have done, will achieve the same result.

The Gonzales poll puts Donald Trump at the top of the state’s GOP presidential primary field. Trump clocks in at 32 percent, followed by Senators Ted Cruz (15 percent) and Marco Rubio (14 percent) and honorary favorite son Dr. Ben Carson (9 percent).

GOP voters in Maryland have a long history of siding with the kinds of establishment candidates typically nominated by the party. So why would someone like Trump be so far ahead in a state known for its moderate traditions?

Given the chaotic nature of the primary process, the state’s own GOP establishment has yet to coalesce around a “traditional” candidate. Consequently, to varying degrees all the candidates apart from Trump seem to be waging nascent campaigns here – including Governor Chris Christie, who enjoys the strong backing of Governor Hogan.

The Gonzales poll shows Democratic senatorial hopeful Rep. Chris Van Hollen leading his House colleague Rep. Donna Edwards by a tight 38 – 36 percent margin.

Edwards’ strength is not a surprise given the outsider nature of the year and the importance of women and African Americans in the Democratic primary. If these numbers raise a question, it is why no other candidates – especially those from the Baltimore area – have chosen to get in the race.

Lastly, the poll shows that former Governor O’Malley is attracting only five percent support in the presidential primary. Assuming that it is now a set contest between Clinton and Sanders, where does O’Malley go from here? Will he land in a cabinet position, or will he fade off into obscurity in the way other former Maryland governors have?

Given his affinity for partisanship, perhaps the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee is a possible option.

None of these questions will be answered by a subsequent opinion poll. Events alone will provide the answers.

In the meantime, however, please keep the polling data coming.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore, and blogs at His e-mail address: .

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