O'Malley in 2016: Rising From the Sea of Blue

As ridiculous as all of the "Cuomo 2016" buzz I have been reading online appears, one person whose electoral fortunes are far more interesting to me is Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. He is well networked, good-looking, the current Democratic Governors Association chair, but above all, he has an electoral record that inspires envy.

While his victory over incumbent governor Bob Ehrlich in 2006 was impressive, equally so was his defense of that office in 2010, where he doubled his margin in a re-match - a stark contrast against all the other blue governors who found themselves looking for work in the private sector after last fall.

Part of what enabled O'Malley to stay around is the state that he resides in. Maryland has now leap-frogged into first place on our "most Democratic list", topping Vermont and edging out Hawaii. Not only has Maryland voted strongly Democratic at the presidential level, but O'Malley's victory margins have proved an even stronger indicator of Democratic strength in the state. And with control of legislative seats the span an incredibly diverse range of ideologies within the state, culminating in control of both chambers, it is hard to argue with that kind of success.

The Democratic base in Maryland is anchored by performance in Washington D.C. suburbs and Baltimore, where black voters put up 95-5 margins for Obama in some districts. That huge base of votes has led to a legislature distribution that is bears little resemblance to anything we have seen so far. This is one of the cases where I think a graphic is incredibly helpful in understanding just how different Maryland is.

The graphic above plots out the partisan distribution of seats in every legislature we've tackled thus far. The y-axis uses the LDI numbers, while the x-axis measures from most Democratic to least. Starting at the left, Maryland winds up third highest on the list, but the difference is that they're the only one in that grouping from a very blue state, where the generic advantage has all ready been subtracted. In the case of Nebraska (1st) and Wisconsin (2nd), these were strong Democratic areas made even more so by their existance within a conservative to moderate state. But not Maryland - instead, these seats are just the beginning of a long string of incredible strong territory for the party. In almost every state we have worked on, after the first tenth of the seats, the LDI scores start approaching that middle-mark, where the only advantage in the district is the one that the party enjoys throughout the entire state. But not Maryland - there are districts near the D+40 mark through the first 20% of the state. When things do drop to the state average, they do it fast - there is an incredibly sharp decline within that middle 20% of seats, and then suddenly, the seats become more Republican than we've seen thus far - though that is also a function of the unprecedented advantage the Democratic party enjoys in the state.

I use the normalized LDI data as opposed to the 50/50 numbers because I believe it effectively illustrates one thing - Maryland is by far the most polarized state we have come across. Sure, there are other states with districts far more Democratic than the rest, but that is a natural feature - metro areas are going to produce these sort of bumps. But generically, the middle 50% of districts are within a fairly narrow electoral ban +/- 10% or so. Now, those districts might favor one party of the other, but the central point is that there is a large swath of the electorate that is of a relatively similar composition - the ability to win them over to your side probably translates into electoral success for your party.

In Maryland however, that middle section is totally absent. I believe the kind of data we're seeing here makes a strong case for campaigning to your base rather than the middle in Maryland, as there isn't a homogenous middle-group to court. It immediately brings to mind some of the ridiculous cynical campaign tactics employed by the Ehrlich and Steele campaigns - fake brochures advertising Republicans as Democrats, ground campaigns to designed to cause confusion and uncertainty within the Democratic base, rather than winning over those middle, "independent", Maryland voters. While their tactics were absolutely indefensible, they were operating them along the only path to victory they saw - bolstering turnout among their supporters, and counting on that huge Democratic base to miss out on election day.

Governor O'Malley strikes an impressive figure, and I really look forward to seeing what he brings to the table over the next few years - he could be a real exciting prospect for the party. But people on the sidelines need to be aware of the political realities all of our figures live with - in O'Malley's case, he's managed a consistent, effective, and diverse party within a state that starts out incredibly blue to begin with. He is doing it governing as a Democrat on most issues, unlike Cuomo, and if he keeps it up he could find himself challenging for a bigger stage. But after getting rolled on same-sex marriage this year, and allowing Cuomo to steal the spotlight and adulation of the progressive community, O'Malley is going to have to up his game if he thinks he is ready for primetime.

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