Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland Ben Jealous gives a concession speech after losing to governor Larry Hagan. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
For all its progressiveness, Maryland once again wasn’t able to elect a black candidate to a statewide office this election cycle.
All kinds of reasons were thrown out for why Democrat Ben Jealous lost his gubernatorial bid, the latest in a line of black Democrats who over the years haven’t been able to garner enough votes across the state to declare victory. Remember Kweisi Mfume, Donna Edwards and Anthony Brown?
Mr. Jealous ran a bad campaign, some said. He was too progressive. He was a fine candidate and a heck of a guy, but Gov. Larry Hogan was just too good at building bridges across party lines.
While these all may be legitimate reasons to some extent, what no one wants to talk about is whether race played a role in people’s decisions.
Mr. Jealous’ loss begs the question: Will Maryland’s electorate vote for a black candidate statewide? And more specifically, will white voters cast their ballots across racial lines?
In a state where Democrats have a 2-1 advantage over Republicans, it is problematic that party loyalty seems to go out the window when it comes to a black candidate. And no matter how good their resumes — both Mr. Brown and Mr. Jealous had Ivy League pedigrees, Mr. Brown was an Army veteran and Mr. Jealous a Rhodes Scholar — it doesn’t seem to be enough. Maryland voters may be happy enough electing African Americans as lieutenant governor — three in a row, with Michael Steele, Mr. Brown and Boyd Rutherford — but not in their own right.
One analysis of exit polling in Baltimore County provided some evidence that the color of a candidate’s skin does matter. Students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County looked at what voters helped give Governor Hogan an edge in the race, and the data pointed to crossover Democrats. In particular, moderate, wealthy and largely white residents were more likely to vote for Hogan. These Democrats spanned all ages and were both men and women.
African Americans and other people of color were more likely to fill in the bubble for Mr. Jealous. In fact, Mr. Jealous only won in majority-black Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, and in notably diverse Montgomery County. But even in Montgomery County, the race was much closer than is typical; Mr. Jealous only got about 55 percent of the vote there, far below the level white Democratic gubernatorial candidates have achieved there in recent elections. (Mr. Brown’s total in Montgomery was a bit better at 60 percent, but turnout plummeted that year.) And what about Howard County, home to Columbia, a community founded on a promise of racial equality? Voters there supported Mr. O’Malley twice but neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Jealous.
(Interestingly, party loyalty appears to trump race — for Republicans. The best-performing Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland in decades was Mr. Steele.)
In some respects it is not all that surprising Mr. Jealous had trouble courting the white vote. Despite the anomaly of President Barack Obama becoming the first black president, the country is far from being post-racial when it comes to politics.
Across the country, voters have only ever elected 10 African American U.S. Senators in the nation’s history. The country didn’t see its first elected black governor until 1994, when Douglas Wilder won a surprise victory in Virginia. There are currently no black governors, with two other strong candidates this year, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, falling short.
Plenty of analysis over the years have shown that white voters are reluctant to vote for black candidates. It is hard for black candidates to win in majority-white districts. During Jesse Jackson’s run for president in the ‘80s, Democrats worried he would scare away conservative members of the party. Can we say code for white voters?
Candidates’ dog whistle campaigning and racial undertones in advertisements are a clear sign that they know reminding white voters that a candidate doesn’t look like them works. Political television ads run by The Republican Governors Association portrayed Mr. Jealous as angry and extreme. Images of him were darkened and sinister. The advertisements didn’t come directly from Mr. Hogan’s campaign, but the governor also didn’t denounce the ads either.
Admittedly, it is hard to capture how much of a role race plays in voting. Even with exit polling some voters won’t admit their biases. Plenty of people don’t want to stand up to being that person, even in an anonymous poll. The term the “Bradley Effect” was coined in the 1980s after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost the race for governor despite being ahead in the polls the entire campaign. Some questioned whether voters were honest about being willing to vote for a black man.
Implicit bias can also come into play. Some white voters may subconsciously hold black candidates to a higher standard. Or voters will choose a candidate who they feel comfortable with, or to whom they can relate. You often hear of candidates being described as a regular guy who you might invite over for dinner. People often feel more comfortable with people who look like them.
To be fair, Hogan did a good job of painting himself as a candidate that represents all — whether you believe that or not — and garnered the support of some black voters. Even in Baltimore City, which he barely courted. But in the era of Donald Trump and at a time when the blue wave swept the rest of the state, Mr. Hogan should have been easier to beat.
African-American voters are often expected to be Democratic party loyalists at all costs. What other choice do these voters have, it is said. It would be nice if that loyalty was the same for African-American candidates.