Polls close in Maryland at 8 p.m. (assuming a judge doesn’t keep some open later because of problems in certain precincts, as has been known to happen). And it will probably be hours after that before it’s safe to declare a winner in the high-profile contests.
But there are signs a smart election watcher can look for to see if Democrat Ben Jealous is riding a blue wave or if Gov. Larry Hogan swamps him with a red tide.
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Here are a few to watch for:
Early voting should belong to the Democrats
Republican leaders in Maryland fought against the establishment of early voting here, and their supporters have been less keen to take advantage of it. Even Anthony G. Brown, the Democrat who lost to Governor Hogan four years ago, came out of early voting with a 27,438 vote lead. Four years earlier, former Gov. Martin O’Malley more than doubled that margin in early voting in his rematch with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
The week-long voting period plays to Democrats’ organizational strengths here and the ability of labor unions (which typically back Democrats) to get people to the polls. Moreover, Mr. Jealous has said he was investing heavily in a turn-out-the-vote operation; if that’s working, we should see evidence of it in the early vote, which will be the first thing posted after the polls close. The numbers from early voting are way up over the last gubernatorial election, but who has the advantage? If Mr. Jealous is behind after early voting, he’s in trouble.
Is Hogan holding the GOP base?
Governor Hogan has so far seemed to get away with not only keeping his distance from President Donald Trump but even openly defying him at times, something that has doomed many a GOP leader in the last couple of years. He has worked to protect the Affordable Care Act — even when that meant accepting what could easily be construed as a tax increase. He asked the attorney general to sue the Trump EPA over air pollution. He backed gun control measures. Indeed, his list of apostasies to conservatives is long. Yet he faced no primary challenge this year, and polls have suggested that conservatives remain supportive.
But will they turn out and vote for him? The easiest way to tell is by watching the results from rural red counties, places where Republican candidates ought to be able to run up the score. Because they tend to be small, they often report results faster than the big, urbanized counties.
Four years ago, Mr. Hogan racked up a 126,595 vote margin in the rural red counties, double what Mr. Ehrlich managed against Mr. O’Malley in either 2006 or 2010. Here’s Mr. Hogan’s margin of victory in each of those counties four years ago. Look to see whether he’s maintaining or increasing that edge:
The red firewall
If Democrats have the Big Three in their corner (deep blue Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City), Republicans in Maryland have the Medium Four: Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick and Harford counties. They typically go Republican in presidential and gubernatorial elections, and they’re of sufficient size to move the needle in a state-wide race. Mr. Hogan did really well in them last time, nearly doubling Mr. Ehrlich’s margin of victory in them from four and eight years before.
However, Anne Arundel and Frederick in particular have highly competitive races for county executive and other offices that should help drive turnout among Democrats. Rapid growth spilling over from the Washington suburbs has changed Frederick somewhat, and Anne Arundel is precisely the kind of suburban jurisdiction where support for President Trump nationally has faded, particularly among women.
It’s not that Mr. Jealous has a realistic shot of winning any of these counties, but the margin matters. Mr. Hogan won them with nearly 72 percent of the vote, compared to Mr. Ehrlich’s 61 percent four years earlier. If Mr. Hogan only did that well, Mr. Brown would be governor today.
The swing counties
Only three of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions regularly switch sides in gubernatorial elections, and these bellwethers can generally give you a sense of where things are going. Charles County used to be part of reliably Republican Southern Maryland, but in recent years it has begun to switch its orientation to the Democratic Washington suburbs. Mr. Brown eked out a 2,333-vote margin of victory there four years ago, a far cry from Mr. O’Malley’s 11,287-vote margin four years before that. If Mr. Hogan wins Charles or holds the margin close, he’s in good shape.
Howard County has gone with the winner in every gubernatorial election since 1998, the longest such streak in the state. Choose Civility-land is also ground zero for the kind of educated, suburban voters who are turned off by Mr. Trump and may wish to send him a message — which could be bad for Mr. Hogan, his best efforts to distance himself from the president notwithstanding. A win here would be very good news for Mr. Jealous.
And Baltimore County is the big prize among the swing counties, producing more total votes between the two candidates than more populous Prince George’s did four years ago. A Democrat doesn’t have to win it to prevail state-wide, but he or she would need to be close. Losing by a margin in the single digits (which is what Mr. O’Malley managed in 2006 and Parris Glendening did in 1998) can still produce a reasonably comfortable state-wide win for a Democrat. But if the Republican wins by 20 points (as Mr. Hogan did in 2014 and Mr. Ehrlich did in 2002), it’s a good night for the GOP.
The big three
The state’s two biggest counties (Montgomery and Prince George’s) and Baltimore City often take a while to report their results (especially Baltimore City). That can make the night look bad for the Democrats until late, when their typically heavy margins from these populous jurisdictions start to roll in. The question here has traditionally been turnout; indeed, Mr. Brown’s entire loss has often been chalked up to a missing 100,000 votes from those three jurisdictions. There’s something to that; Mr. O’Malley totaled 535,975 votes from them in 2010, but Mr. Brown only got 454,857, despite winning a similar share of the total vote (79 percent for Mr. O’Malley, 74 percent for Mr. Brown). If Mr. Jealous is going to win, he needs to be getting up around 200,000 votes or more in both Montgomery and Prince George’s and 140,000 or more in Baltimore City. Meanwhile, though, Mr. Hogan has been working hard to appeal to voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, in particular, with television ads designed to reach Democratic voters there. If they work and he gets north of 30 percent of the vote in the Big Three, that’s the ballgame.