Would a primary against Fisher help Charlie Baker?

Former Governor Bill Weld, who is now serving as an advisor to Charlie Baker’s campaign for the corner office, thinks that a primary contest with ultra-conservative candidate Mark Fisher would improve the Republican nominee’s chances of winning in the fall. The idea is that Baker would benefit from the comparison between his moderate managerial competence approach and Fisher’s rigid ideological extremism. Is Weld right about this? If he is right, should he counsel his gubernatorial mentee to publicly urge the MassGOP to allow Mr. Fisher’s name to appear on the primary ballot?

What say the political scientists? There is quite a bit of political science research on the impact of primary elections on the general election prospects of party nominees. The so-called “divisive primary hypothesis” posits that a competitive primary fight will have a negative impact on the general election prospects of the party nominee. Motivated by ongoing arguments over whether or not the Clinton-Obama primary fight in 2008 was good or bad for the Democratic nominee’s fall prospects, John Sides over at The Monkey Cage posted a brief but useful primer on the state of poli sci research on this issue as it relates to presidential elections a couple of years back. Sides concluded that the evidence doesn’t seem to support the notion that divisive presidential primaries are damaging to party nominees.

The divisive primary hypothesis was conceived by Cornell University Professor Andrew Hacker, who in his 1964 article “Does a Divisive Primary Harm a Candidate’s Election Chances?” concluded that for US Senate and gubernatorial candidates, divisive primaries reduce the chances of victory in the general election. In a study published in 1984, Patrick Kenney and Tom Rice tried to confirm Hacker’s conclusions. They noted that previous efforts to do so had failed due, in their opinion, to methodological flaws. Kenney and Rice found that divisive primaries do harm US Senate and gubernatorial candidates in the general election. Interestingly, however, they could substantiate this effect only for Democratic gubernatorial candidates, but not for Republican gubernatorial candidates. In 2008, researchers at Dartmouth College looked exclusively at the impact of divisive primaries on gubernatorial elections. Utilizing a rational choice approach, they hypothesized that the “divisiveness” of a primary correlates with the ideological distance between candidates for a party nomination. “The more extreme the primary winner is [ ] the more likely it is that moderate voters will defect to the other party’s candidate in the general election.” On the other hand, “[a] divisive primary with less damaging consequences occurs when the victor represents a more centrist position relative to the opponent and to the general voting population.” Alas, despite high levels of intuitive plausibility, the data failed to support these hypotheses, which means that for our present purposes only the now 60 year old findings of Andrew Hacker support the notion that Charlie Baker ought to fear a primary challenger in this year’s Bay State race for the corner office.

Furthermore, even if the evidence showed that “divisive” primaries are dangerous for Republican gubernatorial candidates, it is far from certain that a Baker/Fisher primary would be “divisive.” The author of the divisive primary hypothesis reveals why in his definition of a divisive primary. “A ‘divisive’ primary is here defined as one where the winning candidate received less than 65% of the total votes cast.” If Mark Fisher’s 15% showing at the MassGOP convention is indicative of his level of support among Republican primary voters, then it’s possible that this threshold for divisiveness would be out of reach for Fisher.

On balance, the available scholarly evidence suggests that Charlie Baker doesn’t have much to fear from a primary contest with Mark Fisher, but does that mean that a Baker/Fisher primary contest would be a net plus for Baker’s general election chances as Bill Weld contends? John Sides’ Monkey Cage primer on the divisive primary hypothesis in presidential elections does identify scholarly research pointing to potential electoral advantages of having a competitive primary, but I did not find any such research that would be applicable to the 2014 Massachusetts governor’s race. Weld’s assumption that a Baker/Fisher primary contest would enhance the GOP nominee’s electoral chances in November is, apparently, not based on systematic evidence, so what factors does Weld see at play in the 2014 governor’s race that lead him to this conclusion?

I suspect Governor Weld believes that Mark Fisher would not generate enough support or momentum to make a primary race competitive, which would allow Baker to selectively engage his Republican rival during the campaign. Without realistic fear of losing the nomination, Baker should be able to dictate the flow of the campaign narrative in the nomination contest against Fisher. He should be able to ignore potentially problematic provocations from Fisher and to stay on message, using Fisher as a foil. Weld might be arguing to the campaign that without Fisher as a foil and without a certain Democratic foe Baker’s message could be less salient. While Baker’s profile and message matches up better with Martha Coackley at the top of the Democratic ticket, he can’t assume she will survive her primary contest and campaign accordingly over the spring and summer months. If he did and Grossman came out on top of Coackley, Baker would be left in a rhetorically precarious position. It could well be that a primary challenge from Fisher would help keep Baker sharp and his campaign message visible and relevant during what promises to be a very divisive Democratic primary. Unlike Coakley and Grossman, the outcome of Baker’s contest with Fisher would be a foregone conclusion and the contrasts between the dogfight for the Democratic nod and the steady drubbing that a calm, cool, and collected Charlie Baker could inflict on Fisher would very likely redound to the benefit of the GOP nominee.

Despite the lack of definitive and systematic evidence, I think the contextual “known knowns” of this election make it more likely than not that the MassGOPs most influential elder statesman is on to something here. I agree with Governor Weld that a Baker/Fisher primary could pay dividends in the general election for Charlie Baker. Because the poli sci research does seem to suggest that a primary wouldn’t hurt Baker’s chances, Governor Weld’s claim is at worst a low risk proposition. Less clear is whether or not Baker should short circuit the imminent legal battle between Fisher and the MassGOP by publicly asking the party to put Fisher on the ballot. I’m leaning toward yes. Maybe I’ll game out the potential pros and cons of that move next week.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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12 Responses to Would a primary against Fisher help Charlie Baker?

  1. Someone mentioned elseware that the big issue is money. Baker doesn’t have to wait until after a primary to use certain GOP funds.

    • Good point Patrick. Though I don’t expect Baker to have money problems, or that the GOP funds in question are a primary source of funds for him, it may well be a factor in the campaign’s consideration of this issue.

  2. Dr. Ed says:

    I think Bill Weld is right, but for different reasons.

    I’d argue that all the models are largely irrelevant because they involve situations where there is no primary challenger. In this case, there very much is one and the question is if he will or won’t be permitted onto the ballot — the latter is not going to make him not be a challenger.

    Bill Weld is the man who coined the “shootout in the lifeboat” term to describe the discord in the Mass GOP and as bad as things were in the 1990s — well the “shootouts in the lifeboat” have gotten to the point where folks are touching off 155 MM Howitzers in the lifeboat… My guess is that Weld is thinking that Baker is going to be harmed more by the “he was cheated” mantra than anything Fisher might do/say in a primary and hence that the lesser of two evils would be for Charlie to be magnanimous and ask the party to have the primary.

    A primary would do four things. First, it would end the Fisher challenge at the primary while without it, the challenge would continue through to the general election (if not beyond — what happens if Baker wins the corner office and then a court rules that he was improperly nominated?) If Baker is magnanimous here, it gives him the opportunity to bring Fisher (and his supporters) back into a united effort for both the general and the governance thereafter. This is what Weld did with Steve Pierce — which stands in sharp contrast to, say, the “Mutual Assured Destruction” of the Phil Blute & Jane Swift spat (remember “Gidget”?) or the consequences of how folks like Christy Milhos and JimRappaport were dealt with.

    A lot of people *think* that they understand Machavelli, I argue that Bill Weld actually does — particularly the point about how one should avoid making enemies wherever possible because of the incredibly high price of doing so. In recent years the MassGOP has taken the “my way or the highway” approach and ignored the fact that most folk have responded “will that be I-93 or I-95”? There is a high opportunity cost to being a Republican in this state and the party won’t have to shrink much more before it becomes irrelevant.

    Second, and I’m sure Weld knows this because it is how he defeated Pierce (and how Romney’s people were able to defeat Rappaport), independents outvote Republicans in the primary, and they’ll vote for Baker. A Republican primary will also draw independents away from the Democratic primary (as they can only vote in one) and these will be the “Reagan Democrats” who choose to go to the GOP primary so they can vote for Baker.

    This likely will do two things. First, having already chosen to vote for Baker, they likely will do the same thing in the General Election which actually becomes two votes for him, the vote cast and the vote not cast for the Dem nominee. Second, with the moderate & conservative independents voting in the Republican primary, the population voting in the Dem primary will be quite a bit further to the left than it otherwise would be — and Coakley having to run to the left is what helped Scott Brown defeat her — and someone to the left of her could actually defeat her if enough moderates are over voting in the other primary. Even if she wins, she does have the very large Ameralt millstone around her neck — notice how she was behind the $3M settlement in the Bridgwater death.

    Third, Baker is a genuinely nice guy. He’s a manager, a collaborative leader — not a combative trial attorney the way Coakley is. Baker needs to advocate and articulate why people should vote for him, something he didn’t do the last time and coming out of a primary doing that will set him up for the much bigger challenge of doing this going into November. There are issues that he and Fisher agree on, issues which a good chunk of the electorate agree on, and the mistake the GOP has been making is not explaining why people should want to be a Republican.

    Fourth, going back to the “shootout in the lifeboat” issue — between the “my way or the highway” mentality and some of the ruthless “banana republic-style” shenanigans, there are a lot of people who have drifted away from the party and politics in general. Likewise, there are a lot of “Reagan Democrats” and “Trade Union Democrats” who are not really happy with their party — do not underestimate the broad appeal of what the Pioneer Institute is saying about education right now.

    Weld was part of Ed Reform — he knows that this is something that Baker can use to gain broad support. It’s a reason why one would want to be a Republican and the MassGOP has a real issue with “boots on the ground” right now.

    Random thoughts from flyover country — for what they are worth.

  3. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Duquette,

    I suppose we have to try to match up hypothetical benefits with the state of affairs in this particular race.

    Mark Fisher has raised almost no money, and, in fact, was outraised by the Young Republicans in the past fundraising period. He has spent $200K of his own money. He is not an extraordinarily wealthy man. He will not be on TV. How many “Tea Party” people are in MA? We actually know (buried in bottom map in this story): 7,196.

    Sure, there are lots of social conservatives who aren’t Tea Partiers. Most of the ones I know support Baker for pragmatic reasons. How many socons will rally to Fisher’s support? Maybe several thousand more. Maybe.

    So if Fisher has no donors, few supporters, and won’t be on TV, what will the effect be? Charlie Baker is going to ignore Fisher’s campaign and agree to debates without a video feed in some Elk’s Club somewhere that no one will hear about.

    Fisher does not have the money, supporters, or ideas to engage Baker in any way. It will only be a primary on paper and the only difference is that the party couldn’t support Baker until September. This isn’t just money, but coordination at all the regional MassGOP offices around the state.

    So I think Governor Weld is completely off here. He’s thinking about the merits of a primary, not of the primary we are contemplating.

    One more thing: we actually do have a much more meaningful primary in place: Baker vs. McCormick. McCormick is a far more attractive candidate who, unlike Fisher, will be competing for the same voters for the same reasons. Any votes McCormick gets on election day will almost certainly come from Baker’s base, so he must engage and defeat McCormick as he can’t risk him getting any significant part of the vote. Now that competition looks like it could make Baker compete harder. For me, that’s the far better primary than one against Fisher that the public won’t even know exists, but for those 7,196 people who have no relevance to MA politics.

    • Ed,

      I don’t understand how the relative weakness of Fisher’s campaign eliminates the utility of a Republican primary? I assume that this weakness simply gives Baker the flexibility to use Fisher as he sees fit. Are you saying that Baker can and should use McCormick in this way and that Fisher would be a distraction from that?

      • Ed Lyons says:

        Professor Duquette,

        A primary is a competition that changes the behavior of those who are in it, ideally for the better, but not always so.

        I am simply saying that Fisher does not have the ability to change Baker’s behavior. There is no credible threat. Baker will ignore Fisher, I am certain. Fisher’s few supporters will either end up voting for Baker or not vote at all. (They certainly are not voting Democrat.)

        McCormick, though also without lots of money or supporters, can change Baker’s behavior, because he, unlike Fisher, can take crucial votes away from Baker on Election Day. For example, if McCormick begins to do well in a certain slice of the business community, Baker will have to cover his flank there.


        • Why wouldn’t Baker take the opportunity to publicly disagree with or chastize Fisher when he comes out with some wingnut idea or statement? I totally agree that Baker will have the power to ignore Fisher, but I don’t get why he would choose to let very easy opportunities to separate himself from his toxic party label by slapping it on Fisher every now and again? He can’t very well slap it on McCormick, right? I agree that McCormick (despite his reletive weakness) becomes a problem in a very close general election, but I don’t see why using Fisher as a “Republican” punching bag prevents or distracts Baker from what he needs to do to sufficiently marginalize McCormick. I am going to have to take a harder look at McCormick. I may not know as much about him as you do.

        • Dr. Ed says:

          “Fisher’s few supporters will either end up voting for Baker or not vote at all. (They certainly are not voting Democrat.)”

          I would strongly caution against this attitude — they might just vote Democrat out of spite. And even if they just don’t vote — never forget that Mitt Romney would be President today if the same number of working class White males in Ohio had voted in 2012 that voted in 2008.

          It’s one thing to make a pragmatic decision that Baker can win and will be better than Coakley. It’s another thing entirely to believe that the “game is rigged” and that the “big tent” isn’t big enough to include you.
          Which goes to my second point — where is this Baker v. McCormick primary coming from? I don’t remember hearing that McCormick got 15% of the vote (or any percentage of the vote) and I may just be a “good government” idealist but how is he eligible to run if Fisher isn’t?

          I’m reminded of a point that the late Margaret Chase Smith once made — Smith was the first woman ever to win a US Senate seat in her own name, she’d inherited her husband’s House seat (Maine had three Congressmen at the time) but the state party did not want her running for the Senate.

          She credited the Maine primary system — where anyone who obtains a specified number of signatures (2000 for Governor — Maine has no Lt. Gov) is on the primary ballot — she made the point that otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten the Republican nomination and hence able to be a Senator. I’m thinking this wouldn’t be a bad thing for Massachusetts, either…

          (As an aside, she made her house in Skowheagan into a museum, I had the honor of meeting her before she died. See www.mcslibrary.org/)

  4. Pingback: What Did Charlie Baker Know and When Did He Know It? |

  5. Jerold Duquette says:

    Dr. Ed,

    I’m familiar with the larger argument, which is debatable. It doesn’t change the fact that your claim is wrong. Even if Romney had won Ohio, he still would have lost.

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