Poll: ‘Palin Effect’ Negative for Maryland GOP voters; Ehrlich holds strong lead in Republican primary

Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Brian Murphy may have boosted the Republican gubernatorial long-shot’s efforts at attracting attention from the media, but it appears to do more harm than good among likely GOP primary voters, according to a new poll released Monday.

The Center Maryland / OpinionWorks telephone poll of likely Maryland voters found that former Gov. Robert Ehrlich holds a commanding lead over Murphy among Republican primary voters, 75 percent to 13 percent. (Click here to see the question and results.)

But with 11 percent of likely Republican primary voters still undecided, it’s possible that Murphy could break through Maryland’s “Fustero line” – the 20 percent threshold that political observers suggest might represent a weakness in Ehrlich’s hold over his party base.

“Brian Murphy has a distinct message, and if he gets out there, he might improve those numbers a bit,” said Steve Raabe, president and founder of the Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, which conducted the poll in conjunction with the non-profit Center Maryland. “As it stands today, Murphy may end up in the low 20s.

“I don’t see any signs that Ehrlich is in any trouble in the primary,” said Raabe, whose firm has extensive experience polling in Maryland political races, including for the Baltimore Sun during recent campaigns. “Murphy’s real impact is to hurt Ehrlich in the longer run by raising concerns about his fiscal record as Governor.”

The Center Maryland / OpinionWorks Statewide Voter Survey was conducted August 13-18, 2010. The telephone survey questioned 600 likely General Election voters statewide, and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The sample was balanced by region of the state, political party, age, gender, and race/ethnicity to reflect the characteristics of Maryland’s likely voter population.

To assess the Republican primary, the survey results focused on the 132 likely Republican voters who said they are certain or probable to vote in the September Republican primary election – creating a margin of error of 8.5 percentage points.

The Center Maryland / OpinionWorks questions on the GOP primary and the effect of Palin’s endorsement marks the first Maryland poll to specifically ask about Murphy’s challenge to Ehrlich. The winner of the Sept. 14th primary is expected to face Gov. Martin O’Malley in November’s general election.

After Republican voters in the survey indicated who they support in the September GOP primary, they were asked how the endorsement of Murphy by Palin – the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP nominee for vice president – affected their choice.

Among Republicans who said they are certain or probable to vote in the primary, 11 percent said Palin’s endorsement made it more likely to vote for Muphy, and 15 percent said it made them less likely to support Murphy. Two-thirds said it made no difference. (Click here to see the question and results.)

“The ‘Palin factor’ cuts negatively, if slightly so,” Raabe said. “Most don’t care. For those that care, it doesn’t help Murphy.”

But among the most definite Republican voters – those who said they are certain to vote in the primary – only 7 percent said Palin’s endorsement made them more likely to support Murphy, and 15 percent said they were less likely to support him.

“If you’re a Republican in Maryland, the more likely you are to vote in the primary, the less likely you are to like Palin’s endorsement,” Raabe said. “She cuts against the hard-core primary voter.”

For many political observers, the performance of established gubernatorial candidates in primary elections against unknown or relatively unknown challengers marks an opportunity to assess how well those candidates will hold their base in general elections.

Eight years ago, when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote to an unknown retired grocery clerk named Robert Fustero, many analysts quickly suggested that she was having trouble energizing core Democratic constituencies. Townsend ultimately lost to Ehrlich two months later. Similar questions might be raised about Ehrlich if Murphy were to exceed 20 percent of the vote in the September Republican primary.

In campaign finance reports release last week, Ehrlich reported raising almost $3.2 million, and has spent about $1.3 million. Murphy, a former commodities trader, reported raising $211,000 and spending $169,000. About half of Murphy’s fund-raising is money he has loaned to his campaign.

Who conducted the poll:

OpinionWorks is a research firm based in Annapolis that has extensive experience conducting polling and focus group surveys in Maryland and around the country. Recent clients include the Baltimore Sun, New York City Mayor’s Office, Florida Courts System, and non-profit organizations working in such areas as mass transit, health care, higher education, water protection, and museums and the arts. (www.opinionworks.com)

Center Maryland is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit media outlet that highlights issues of real importance to job creation and economic growth in Maryland – with straight-down-the-middle reporting by professional journalists. Center Maryland features weekly columns from Donald Fry, President of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and long-time Maryland political commentator Josh Kurtz. Center Maryland’s website (www.centermaryland.org) and daily email provide the most comprehensive aggregation of media sources in Maryland.