Three weeks before their primary, Maryland Democrats remain largely undecided about whom to nominate for governor, according to a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, in a race overshadowed by record popularity for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III lead the sizable Democratic pack, the survey finds. But the outcome of the race probably will depend on the nearly 4 in 10 likely voters who have not yet settled on a candidate.
Hogan’s broad support — nearly two-thirds of Democrats approve of his job performance — defies a national political climate in which opposition to President Trump has energized Democrats. The governor’s 71 percent job-approval rating among all Marylanders matches his previous record high, and residents are more optimistic about the state’s direction than in any Washington Post poll over the past quarter-century, the survey finds.
Hogan leads each Democrat by at least 10 percentage points in possible general-election matchups. Despite months of campaigning, multiple forums and two televised debates, none of the seven major Democratic contenders have distinguished themselves as the most experienced or electable, the poll finds.
“The thing that I was most struck by . . . is just how strong the support is and how diverse the support is for Hogan, regardless of who the opponent is,” said Michael J. Hanmer, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship, which conducted the poll with The Post.
If the June 26 Democratic primary were held today, 21 percent of likely voters say they would support Jealous, while 16 percent favor Baker. The margin is not statistically significant, but it demonstrates the extent to which Jealous, a political newcomer with high-profile progressive endorsements, is threatening Baker, a veteran official backed by much of Maryland’s political establishment.
The five other candidates are in single digits. Eight percent of likely voters say they back Valerie Ervin, a former Montgomery County Council member who was a candidate for lieutenant governor until the death last month of her running mate, Kevin Kamenetz. The Baltimore County executive had been near the top in earlier polls.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) has 6 percent support in the Post-U-Md. poll, although he is among the most competitive of the Democrats in a head-to-head matchup with Hogan. James L. Shea, a Baltimore lawyer, and Krishanti Vignarajah, a former Michelle Obama aide, each have the support of 4 percent of likely voters. Technology entrepreneur and former Obama administration aide Alec Ross has 2 percent.
“It looks like a pretty tight contest,” Hanmer said. “It’s going to come down to which candidates can get their supporters to show up and vote.”
The candidates faced off Tuesday evening in a televised debate sponsored by the Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV and the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
Democrats are more sharply divided by region than ideology, the survey found. Jealous leads Baker 35 percent to 4 percent among likely voters in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, even though Baker has made repeated visits to the Baltimore area and has launched television advertising there.
Jealous, who has been endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), headed the Baltimore-based NAACP from 2008 to 2013. His parents and grandparents grew up in the city, although he was raised in California.
Pikesville resident David Braitman, 70, said he favors Jealous because he is familiar with his work at the NAACP and supports his progressive agenda. Braitman also said he has seen more of Jealous’s television advertisements than those of other candidates, whose names he recognized but whose records were unfamiliar to him.
By contrast, Baker leads Jealous 32 percent to 12 percent among likely Democratic voters in the Washington suburbs, where Baker is well known after 7½ years as the top elected official in populous Prince George’s County.
Antoine Jones, 60, a retired cybersecurity consultant in Clinton, said he is backing Baker because of economic growth in Prince George’s during the county executive’s tenure. Jones also said Baker’s decision to take over the public school system — which his critics say could be an Achilles’ heel — showed his willingness to take on difficult problems.
Even the front-runners, however, have struggled to make an impression among the Democratic electorate. Fully 42 percent of registered Democrats have neither a favorable nor unfavorable opinion of Jealous, and 45 percent say the same of Baker. Among likely Democratic voters, more than 4 in 10 have “no opinion” about which candidate has the best experience or the best chance of beating Hogan.
Undecided Democratic voter Mike Rubin, 45, of Kensington says he has not fully tuned in to the primary, in part because he thinks Hogan has done a generally good job and “governed from the middle.” Another reason, he said, is that the Democrats in the race “are fairly homogeneous on the issues.”
At the same time, he said he probably will vote for a Democrat in November — a vote that is “more for the party than against Hogan.”
Hogan’s approval rating among Maryland adults is up six points from early last year. It exceeds approval ratings for any of the past three governors in Post polling since the late 1990s. Among registered voters, the rating creeps higher, to 74 percent.
The governor cannot be entirely safe in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1. Twelve years ago, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) held a 55 percent job-approval rating among likely voters in a Post poll two weeks before Election Day, only to lose to Martin O’Malley amid a Democratic wave election driven by criticism of George W. Bush and the Iraq War.
But the Post-U.Md. poll suggests that Hogan, a political moderate, is more insulated from national headwinds than Ehrlich was, and is boosted by his widespread personal popularity and efforts to distance himself from Trump. His approval rating tops 60 percent among nearly every political and demographic group tracked by the survey, including Democrats and voters who strongly disapprove of the president.
A record-high 60 percent of Marylanders say the state is headed in the right direction, with positive ratings up from 54 percent in 2016 and from 48 percent in 2015 and 2014.
Many Democratic voters had at least measured praise for Hogan’s performance. Alfred Harbage, 88, a retired Navy engineer and lifelong Democrat, said he would prefer to see a Democrat as governor but generally approves of Hogan’s record: “He hasn’t screwed everything up.”
Democratic voter Kenneth Kearney, 67, of Baltimore voted for Hogan’s opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), in 2014. But he said he hasn’t started looking at this year’s Democratic candidates because he is not unhappy with the job the governor has done.
Still, a significant share of Hogan’s support is soft, with about a quarter of those who approve of him saying they would choose Baker or Jealous in a general-election matchup. The poll finds widespread antipathy toward Trump in the state, and some voters say that could lead them to vote for the Democratic nominee in November despite being generally satisfied with Hogan.
Madaleno trails Hogan by 10 points in a general-election matchup, 40 to 50 percent; Jealous and Baker each lag Hogan by 12 points; and Ervin trails the governor by 13 points, the poll finds.
Hogan holds larger advantages in general-election matchups with Ross, Vignarajah and Shea, leading each by between 18 and 24 points.
The poll was conducted May 29 through June 3 among a random sample of 1,015 Maryland adults reached on landline and cellular phones.
The error margin is 5.5 points among the sample of 698 registered Democrats and six points among likely Democratic voters in the primary.
Registered Democrats were sampled at a higher rate to estimate primary-vote preferences, though final results were weighted to match the proportion of registered Democrats, Republicans and others.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.