Democratic candidates for Governor, Wes Moore, Peter Franchot and Tom Perez.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore leads Tom Perez in early voting and election day results, and on Wednesday one big question remained: Is it possible for anyone to catch Moore?

Since the first round of voting data started rolling in, political experts and campaign strategists have been busy feeding data from voter registrations and preliminary mail-in ballot return rates into models to predict who will emerge victorious from the crowded primary field.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Moore, an entrepreneur and bestselling author, has 36% of counted votes, while Perez, the former U.S. secretary of labor, trails him at 27%. Perez is within striking distance, but would need an influx of mail-in ballots that were cast in his favor at a rate significantly higher than those cast for him election day — a hypothetical that experts call possible, but not probable.

“Certainly, Moore hasn’t won yet. But it’s very likely that he will,” said Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in local politics.

Voters across the state received 372,183 mail-in ballots earlier this summer. As of Tuesday, 45% of those ballots were returned. Officials will not begin counting them until Thursday, in accordance with state law. They will also count ballots postmarked by election day, which may take more than a week to arrive at the state board of elections.

The Moore and Perez campaigns are eyeing Montgomery County, where officials delivered 88,491 Democratic mail-in ballots — a disproportionately high number of mail-in ballots compared to other counties, including Prince George’s County. Just under a third of Montgomery County Democratic mail-in ballots were returned as of Tuesday.

In order to pass Moore, Perez would need more than 70% of those ballots to be returned — that’s more than twice the number returned on or before Election Day. He’d also need to win at least two-thirds of those mail-in votes. That’d be a big step up from his performance in the county’s election day and early voting results: Perez netted 45.3% of those votes, more than 20 percentage points higher than Moore.

“That’s a series of formidable obstacles,” Crenson said.

He speculated that Montgomery County’s mail-in ballots were unlikely to skew very far from its early voting and election day results and that Perez may not see the influx of returned mail-in ballots he needs to win: 50,000 fewer voters turned out for early voting in this year’s primary compared to the 2018 primary, a drop that indicates low turnout.

“Given the lead that Moore has piled up, I don’t think Perez has a chance,” Crenson said.

Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics, emphasized that a Perez win is still mathematically possible.

“Perez has to make up much more of those mail-in ballots, but I will say that his union support has done a really good job of voter contact and encouraging mail-in ballots,” she said. “Whether Wes Moore has put enough distance ahead of Perez is the unknown. It has the potential to be close.”

Former Secretary of State John Willis said that while it’s not out of the question that Perez can catch up, closing the 35,000 vote distance between the two top candidates would require more than a stellar outcome for Perez in Montgomery County, especially if Moore again outperforms Perez in his hometown of Baltimore.

“It’s a difficult task to make up 10 points. Just the math of it is difficult,” said the executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs. Willis, Crenson and Kromer said Peter Franchot, who netted about 20% of early voting and Election Day ballots, will not be able to catch Moore, though he may net a fair number of Montgomery County mail-in votes. That could cut into the share that Perez needs to make up ground on Moore. Franchot, who has served as state comptroller since 2007, has not conceded.

Susie Turnbull, a former chair of the county’s Democratic Party, said she expects the mail-in ballots to resemble the results already tallied.

Turnbull, who also served as Maryland Democratic Party chair and Democratic National Committee vice chair, endorsed Moore last year. She noted that while Perez saw an Election Day boost from his home county, many of his competitors also hail from the region, including Franchot, John King, Doug Gansler and John Barron.

“All of their strong supporters were probably the first people to mail in their ballots,” she said. “I think that what we’re going to see is that the number of ballots that are coming out of Montgomery County will be diverse and not enough to overcome the deficit Perez holds statewide.”

Both Moore and Perez, who emerged as frontrunners from a competitive, crowded field, offered optimistic comments Tuesday night.

“It’s pretty clear right now that this is a two-person race, and we are one of those two people,” Perez told supporters at a party. “We knew that this race wasn’t going to end tonight and we don’t expect this race to end for another week.”

At a party of his own, where an emcee introduced him as Maryland’s next governor, Moore stressed his belief that every vote matters. The next morning, he told supporters in an email that he feels very good about his position. “We woke up today with energy and optimism. Change is in the air,” he wrote.

Their measured approaches are smart, said Sophia Silbergeld, a partner at the political consulting firm Adeo Advocacy and a finance consultant to the Moore campaign, who likened analyzing uncounted mail-in ballots to counting chickens before they hatch. She recalled the 2020 Baltimore Democratic mayoral primary, in which former mayor Sheila Dixon led the first batch of results released on election day.

“Everyone was so certain that Sheila Dixon won, and day by day, Brandon Scott ate into her lead as more mail-in ballots were counted,” she said. “I think we have to wait for the count to be mostly completed, because his 2020 victory taught us all a lot of lessons.”

Baltimore Banner reporters Adam Willis, Clara Longo de Freitas and Penelope Blackwell contributed to this report.

Read more: