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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