Maryland’s top three Democratic candidates are essentially tied as they head into the final weeks of the primary campaign, according to a new poll.
Of Democratic voters who’ve made up their minds and said they are likely to vote, 16% support Peter Franchot, 14% support Wes Moore and 14% support Tom Perez — all well within the margin of error of 4.9%, making the race a statistical dead heat.
And 35% of the 403 Democratic likely voters surveyed remain undecided, according to the Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR.
“It’s pretty clear we have three candidates who have broken into the double digits,” said pollster Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics.
In other polls, both independent and those conducted by campaigns, Franchot, Moore and Perez have largely been ahead of the rest of the large Democratic primary field.
“This confirms something the polls have been showing for some time: that there is an incredibly tight race between the three contenders, with a significant number of people still undecided with less than a month to go,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who teaches a course in Maryland politics.
Franchot is finishing his fourth term as state comptroller and was the first candidate to launch a campaign. Perez is a former federal labor secretary who headed the Democratic National Committee. And Moore is a first-time candidate who is well known for his bestselling memoir, “The Other Wes Moore.”
The other candidates are further back, according to the new poll, including former state Attorney General Doug Gansler at 5% and former U.S. education secretary John King at 4%.
Jon Baron, a policy expert who worked for a nonprofit, loaned his campaign $1.7 million in January and has been advertising on television and online but polled at just 2%. That’s the same as Ashwani Jain, a former federal employee who is running an all-volunteer campaign.
Ralph Jaffe, who has run numerous unsuccessful campaigns, and Jerome Segal, founder of the defunct Bread and Roses socialist party, each had less than 1% support.
The poll did not include Rushern L. Baker III, the former Prince George’s County executive who has suspended has campaign but will still appear on ballots because they’ve already been printed.
Robert Smythe of Montgomery County’s Chevy Chase community is planning to cast his ballot for Franchot.
Climate change, gun control and abortion rights are all important issues to the 79-year-old, but he said it’s Franchot’s experience in state government that sets him apart.
A candidate’s integrity and experience are both important to Smythe’s decision, and some challengers in the Democratic field “have one but not the other,” he said.
Though there are plenty of good options to choose from, Smythe said the comptroller “has earned the job.”
”He’s fairly liberal, and I think he’s done a good job as comptroller,” he said. “I think he’s been good on the environment. I think he’s been good on protecting the vote. I think he’s a reasonable man.”
State Sen. Antonio Hayes represents West Baltimore in the General Assembly and responded to the poll. He said he supported Moore because he wants to help Marylanders gain more economic power. Moore could point to an anti-poverty program he pushed during his time as CEO at the Robin Hood Foundation that worked in the Penn North neighborhood where Hayes grew up.
Moore also had the clearest plan to ensure minority-owned businesses have a fair opportunity to compete for state contracts, Hayes said.
“His theme of work, wages and wealth is impressive to me,” Hayes said. “As Democrats, we shy away from talking about economics, but as my mom likes to say, ‘If it doesn’t make dollars it doesn’t make sense.’”
Dr. Steve Jencks said he believes Perez’s “rich trove of experience” makes him the best-qualified of the Democratic candidates. While some may criticize Perez for certain leadership decisions at the Democratic National Committee, he got the job done, Jencks said.
“He managed to pull the Democratic Party through what was potentially a bitterly divisive primary process and get someone nominated who was elected,” said Jencks, a retired physician from Baltimore who worked in healthcare safety.
Jencks believes in Perez’s campaign motto that says he is part of the “get stuff done” or “GSD” wing of the Democratic Party.
That’s important, Jencks said, because there’s not much to differentiate the candidates on policy matters. Leadership style is more important, he said.
“You have to look at what is the likelihood that they will be able to hold the party together and hold the state together,” Jencks said.
A big question in the race is what the voter turnout will be and who turns out in this later-than-usual election. The primary was initially set for June 28, but was pushed back amid legal battles over the state’s redistricting process.
Voting by mail has already begun, early voting is scheduled for July 7-14 and the traditional election day is July 19.
The summertime primary could benefit Franchot if voters are disengaged, Kromer said.
“Franchot is the most recognizable name and if we have low turnout … when people show up to vote, they see his name and vote for him,” she said.
Kromer expects all of the campaigns will kick their efforts into high gear in the final weeks, trying to win over the 35% of undecided voters and break away from the other candidates.
And even those who have made up their minds could be swayed. In the poll, only 33% of voters who had picked a candidate said they were set on their choice. Another 63% said they could change their mind.
“I think there’s going to be a flush of activity in these last weeks,” she said.
Franchot, Perez and Moore all have sufficient cash on hand to run TV and radio ads to keep their names in front of voters. Moore reported having $2.1 million in the bank earlier this month, and that was before media mogul Oprah Winfrey hosted an online fundraiser for him.
Franchot had $1.6 million cash at the last reporting deadline, and Perez had $1.5 million.
Eberly from St. Mary’s College said candidates should use every avenue possible to get their message to voters. He said it’s disappointing that a plan for the top three candidates to appear Tuesday on WYPR Radio’s “Midday with Tom Hall” program fell apart. Franchot declined, citing a scheduling conflict, and then Moore withdrew. That left Perez, who said the other two candidates were shirking their duty to share their proposals with the voting public.
“This is malpractice on the part of the campaigns,” Eberly said. “You have an opportunity to reach several thousand people all at once, more than you’ll get at a campaign stop.”
With such a tight race, campaigns can’t afford any missed opportunities. “Nobody has a lead they can sit on or try to protect,” he said. “So it makes no sense not to try to do everything you can to be heard and go toe-to-toe with the people you’re tied with.”
The Goucher College Poll was conducted from June 15-19 via landlines and cellphones, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9% among the likely Democratic voters who were polled.
Baltimore Banner reporters Adam Willis and Emily Sullivan contributed to this article.