The Maryland gubernatorial race is closer than many pundits, myself included, had expected. Whoever wins Tuesday, we can take away at least five lessons from the contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Republican businessman Larry Hogan.
First, not unlike American vice presidents, lieutenant governors running for higher office have the tricky task of convincing voters to promote them from second fiddle to first violin.
Maryland has had just seven lieutenant governors since (re-)creating the position in 1970, making it difficult to generalize. Still, none have been elected governor. However persuaded voters are by Lieutenant Governor Brown's campaign message, he's not only trying to make history by becoming the state's first black governor but also by achieving a very rare electoral promotion.
Second, there is the not insignificant matter of Mr. Brown's race.
Barack Obama's historic 2008 election did not convert America overnight into an idyllic, post-racial country. The number of black elected governors since Reconstruction can still be counted on one hand, and the number of black U.S. senators on the other.
Mr. Hogan says Mr. Brown's bid to become the state's first black governor is irrelevant, or should be. That would be nice, but it is relevant.
Maryland is not Vermont or Idaho. It's the state with the fourth-highest African American population share. And Mr. Brown is aggressively and unapologetically appealing to the state's black electorate to help him make state history.
The final results will confirm the power of racial identity in elections — not just between the two parties, but within the state Democratic coalition. Don't be surprised if key swaths of the state exhibit an unusually large drop-off in Democratic support for Mr. Brown relative to Martin O'Malley's performance in the previous two elections.
Third, Mr. Brown likes party favors.
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton came to Maryland to stump for Mr. Brown. So did President Barack Obama. The Brown campaign's closing argument television ads prominently feature Mr. Clinton championing the lieutenant governor.
With all due respect to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was in town Tuesday to stump for Mr. Hogan for the third time, no set of Republican surrogates can match the trio Mr. Brown drafted into duty on his behalf.
It's difficult to quantify how much these appearances and endorsements matter. But Mr. Brown is clearly banking on big-name boosters to provide a late campaign push.
Ms. Clinton will be in College Park Thursday to headline an early voting-themed event, which leads to a fourth lesson: The importance of early voting.
There's nothing more infuriatingly true than hearing some pundit declare that an election outcome will come down to turnout. Well, geez — that's like saying a hockey game will come down to goals scored. But early voting, now used in some form in 33 states, can affect turnout.
Election expert and University of California-Irvine professor Richard Hasen has shown that early voting tends to help raise turnout among low-income and minority voters, two core components of any winning coalition for Mr. Brown. Not unlike Mr. Obama's 2012 reliance upon early voting in swing states, Mr. Brown expects early voters to provide him an electoral head start that a less organized Maryland GOP simply cannot match.
Finally, Mr. Hogan proved to be a solid candidate.
Far less flashy than the state's two more notable Republicans — former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele — Mr. Hogan provided more steak than sizzle. He stuck to a simple plan of focusing his campaign message on taxes, regulation and budgets while cleverly dodging cultural issues where his views are misaligned with the sensibilities of most Maryland voters.
Mr. Hogan's vagaries about reproductive choice and gay marriage are disconcerting, and it's not clear exactly how he plans to lead the Democrat-dominated state legislature, if elected. But not unlike Mr. Steele's surprisingly competitive longshot Senate bid against Ben Cardin in 2006, Mr. Hogan may win the campaign but lose the election.
Mr. Brown should eke out a win. But even if he does — and certainly if he doesn't — the 2014 Maryland governor's race proved to be more interesting and instructive than expected.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schaller67.