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Three States Could Elect A Black Governor This Year. Will They?

Only two African-Americans — neither of them women — have ever been elected governor. But this year, Democrats have chosen black men to be their gubernatorial nominees in Florida and Maryland and a black woman in Georgia, creating the potential for a huge breakthrough for African-Americans at the state level.

It’s unlikely that all three candidates will win — and entirely possible that all three will lose. Moreover, the three candidates stand wildly different chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s newly launched governors forecast.

In Maryland, Ben Jealous, a former head of the NAACP, is a heavy underdog, according to our forecast. He has less than a 1 in 100 (or less than 1 percent) chance of winning. A poll released last week found him trailing by 20 percentage points, and it was not an outlier.

You might be surprised that Jealous is so far behind. After all, Maryland is solidly blue in presidential elections, it has a large black population (about 30 percent of the electorate) and the state’s white voters are not adamantly opposed to voting for Democrats, like they are in some other states.1 (More on that in a moment.)

Jealous’s problem is simple: Incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, first elected in 2014, is really, really popular. In a recent Goucher College poll, Hogan’s approval rating was 64 percent; his disapproval rating was 17 percent. Goucher also found that Hogan is winning about a third of the state’s Democrats in his race against Jealous, a strong performance from a Republican. So Jealous is very likely to lose, but I don’t think that says much about him, his campaign or black candidates in Maryland or the U.S. Again, Hogan is just super popular.

In contrast, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum have very real chances in Georgia and Florida, respectively.

Gillum is in a better position than Abrams, according to our forecast. Gillum has a 7 in 10 (70 percent) chance of defeating Republican Ron DeSantis, a former U.S. House member. Gillum has led DeSantis in nearly every nonpartisan poll of the race, although his leads are small and generally within the margin of error. Abrams, meanwhile, is an underdog, but only a slight one — she has a 3 in 7 (43 percent) chance of defeating Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state.

Why are Gillum’s prospects better than Abrams’s? The mayor has two big advantages compared with Abrams. First, Florida is a shade bluer than Georgia: Obama narrowly won Florida in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton barely lost it in 2016. Second, Gillum’s opponent, DeSantis, has never won a statewide race,2 unlike Abrams’s opponent.

A Gillum victory is far from guaranteed, however. DeSantis’s chances, 3 in 10, are about the same as President Trump’s were nationwide on Election Day in 2016, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast. Indeed, Democrats tend to struggle in statewide, state-level races in Florida, compared with federal contests such as those for the U.S. Senate and president. The state-level races typically take place in midterm election years, when the electorate in Florida is usually much smaller than it is for presidential elections. The last time a Democrat won one of the state’s four major constitutional elected offices3 was 2006. Also, even though Trump has dismal approval ratings in other Obama-Trump states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, his numbers have held up relatively well in Florida. That means he might not be as big of a drag on DeSantis as he is on other GOP gubernatorial candidates.

The Abrams race is a bit more complicated. Polls show it’s very close; the most recent survey found Kemp ahead of her 48 percent to 46 percent. But it’s not too hard to see why her road is tougher than Gillum’s. Georgia is redder than Florida. Trump’s 5-percentage-point victory was fairly narrow, but Mitt Romney carried the state by 8 points in 2012. And the last time Democrats won a major statewide race in Georgia — including for Senate or president — was 2006.

One key difference between the two states: White voters are more Republican-leaning in Georgia. Democratic candidates have been getting less than 25 percent of the white vote in Georgia in recent elections. In Florida, meanwhile, Clinton won 32 percent of white voters in 2016, and Obama won 37 percent in 2012. And even though Georgia has one of the highest minority populations of any state, nearly 60 percent of its voting-age population is white. To win, Abrams probably needs close to 30 percent of the white vote,4 and that’s been a real challenge for Democratic candidates in Georgia.5

Finally, since we are talking about black candidates, I should probably address how much I think being black helps or hurts Abrams and Gillum. During their primaries, Abrams and Gillum argued that Democratic voters should be open to them in part because they were non-traditional candidates — Florida and Georgia Democrats have tapped white, moderate candidates for governor in recent election cycles and lost each time. And Abrams and Gillum backers argued that those two candidates could boost black and millennial turnout, creating an alternative path to victory.

But supporters of the white candidates who ran against Abrams and Gillum in the Democratic primaries this year hinted that the white candidates would do better in the general election than the black candidates. The implication, usually not stated directly, is that white, moderate voters in the South might be wary of Trump and back some Democratic candidates in the midterms, but perhaps not a Democrat who is also black. Gillum, I should note, was also significantly more liberal than his main rival in the Democratic primary, former U.S. House member Gwen Graham. So if he loses the general election, there will be some debate over whether it was because of race, ideology or some combination of both.

Research into race and electability is rather inconclusive. So in trying to look at how being black might affect Abrams and Gillum, I looked at some demographic breakdowns in the polls we have so far in these two contests. A recent survey found that Abrams is carrying about 25 percent of the white vote, a standard number for a Democrat of any ethnicity running in Georgia but one that will make it difficult for her to win. Gillum, meanwhile, has the support of 35 percent to 40 percent of Florida’s white voters, according to recent surveys. That’s a fairly typical level for a Democrat in Florida and suggests that his contest will be very close. But we’re talking about fairly small samples of white voters, so I’m reluctant to draw too much from these polls. It’s also not clear from the polling whether minority or young voters in Florida and Georgia will turn out at higher rates for Abrams or Gillum than they did for previous Democratic candidates.

In other words, you can explain the electoral prospects of all three black gubernatorial candidates without putting their race front and center. So far, Abrams, Gillum and Jealous are performing about how you would expect any Democrat to perform in their respective situations. That said, it will be interesting to see on election night whether Abrams and Gillum, in closely contested races, are able to generate higher-than-projected minority turnout, which might suggest a new path for Democrats competing in the South — focusing more on turning out non-white voters than wooing white centrists. Alternatively, if white voters end up turning against Abrams and Gillum even more than the white Democratic candidates who ran in these states before, that could be a sign that nominating a black candidate imposes an additional electoral barrier (perhaps because of racism) on Democrats in a region where they are already weak.

Footnotes

  1. We don’t have great data for 2016, but in 2012, Barack Obama won more than 40 percent of white voters in Maryland.

  2. DeSantis served in the House from 2013 until he stepped down in September to concentrate on his gubernatorial campaign.

  3. So agriculture commissioner, attorney general, governor or chief financial officer.

  4. The Georgia electorate is likely to be around 60 percent non-Hispanic white, 30 percent African-American and 10 percent people who aren’t in either of those racial/ethnic groups. It’s reasonable to expect, based on previous elections in the state, that Abrams would get around 90 percent of the black vote. I think she’ll get 70 percent of the votes from non-white, non-black people (so, largely Asians and Latinos) based on Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016. If Abrams were to win 27 percent of the white vote, that would put her above 50 percent overall.

  5. Abrams has one other challenge that Gillum does not. There are third-party candidates running in both states, but in Georgia, unless one candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election on Dec. 4. So even if Abrams runs ahead of Kemp on Election Day, she might have to face him in a month-long runoff campaign.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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