Probation Mess: Perception v. Strategic Reality in Guv’s Race

Political scientists have long been debated the relative significance of various factors in determining electoral outcomes. One debate focuses on the relative significance of turning out base partisan voters versus attracting so-called “swing” voters, or voters not wedded to casting a straight party ballot. Another angle on this debate focuses on the relative importance of voter mobilization versus voter persuasion. When media reporters and analysts cover events like the probation trial and verdicts in terms of the impact such things will have on the elections they put greater emphasis on the significance of swing voters and voter persuasion. They pretty much have to do this in order to make their work interesting and relevant to their audiences, but the campaigns of the major party statewide candidates put much greater emphasis on turning out (i.e. mobilizing) voters. To the folks running the Coakley, Grossman, and Baker campaigns public opinion about headline grabbing events, as measured in campaign season media polls, is much less important than most people (and most media analysts) assume.

In the Bay State, thanks to a 3 to 1 party registration advantage, Democratic statewide candidates have the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on turning out reliable Democratic voters, while Republicans have to both mobilize their party faithful AND fracture or discourage Democratic voters. This is obviously not an easy task, but it is possible, especially when the Democrats take care of the fracturing all by themselves. For example, in 2002 Mitt Romney’s election was aided considerably by a very divisive Democratic primary in which Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, State Senate President Tom Birmingham, and Former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich waged very intense campaigns for the party nod. When the smoke cleared, the activists and campaigners for the two losing candidates (Birmingham and Reich) failed to coalesce around.-and work hard for- Shannon O’Brien.

When the media tell us that something like the recent probation trial will be a “boon” to Republican candidate Charlie Baker it is important to understand whether this conclusion is based primarily on the issue’s impact on public opinion (i.e. voter persuasion) or its impact on base mobilization efforts. Most of the press coverage on the political impact of the probation mess focuses on its potential to help Baker persuade voters. This emphasis is wrong and if Baker’s campaign strategists play it that way they may do more harm than good to their candidate’s chances.

The real potential of the probation mess for Baker depends on it’s impact on his relationship with Democratic legislative leaders. Based on Baker’s very careful response so far, I’d say his team understands the real strategic value (and limits) of the probation mess. Baker cannot go too far in condemning Democratic corruption on Beacon Hill because he cannot afford to provoke Democratic leaders into unleashing the full organizational potential of 160 Democratic state legislators, each of whom has a district level voter mobilization operation. Baker can only win if most Democratic state legislators lack powerful enough incentives to expend too much of their political, financial, and organizational resources on electing a fellow Democrat to the corner office this fall.

Much has been made of the need for Charlie Baker to avoid association with his party’s toxic national brand because too much association with the GOP in Washington would discourage ticket-splitting and without enough voters willing to cast votes for Democrats in other races and Baker in the race for the top job he cannot win, plain and simple. The danger of provoking the Democrats who run the legislature by making Democratic corruption the focus of the race for governor is even greater for Baker because Beacon Hill Democrats control well organized voter mobilization operations across the state that, if sufficiently activated, would doom Baker’s candidacy.

So, for Baker to win one thing MUST not happen. The full might of the voter mobilization resources of 160 Democratic members of the General Assembly (most of whom are running unopposed this fall) must NOT be activated on behalf of Baker’s Democratic opponent in the fall. It’s important to remember that Baker’s checks and balances argument to voters isn’t really threatening to Democrats in the legislature. They don’t really have a powerful motivation to prevent divided government at the State House because they enjoy veto-proof majorities in both chambers. As I have often mentioned, many Democrats on Beacon Hill welcome the opportunity to have a Republican governor to kick around every now and then. Baker cannot afford to appear truly threatening to these folks. Most Democrats in the General Assembly are and will provide measurably less assistance to their party’s ticket topper this fall than they would have if a Republican in the corner office represented a genuine threat to their influence and/or tenure. Without such a threat, most Democratic legislators will devote most of their resources to further securing their own tenure and influence within their districts and within their chambers.

The bottom line for Baker is this: Exploit whatever helps mobilize the Republican base and discourage the Democratic base, without awakening the full organizational might of Beacon Hill Democrats, who will grin and bear only so much disrespect and self-righteousness. Of course, Baker’s ability to walk this tight rope may also hinge on the tenor of the contest for the Democratic nomination. If the Coakley-Grossman-Berwick battle gets ugly, fracturing key elements of the party’s statewide activist and voter mobilization networks, Baker will be better able to amp up his righteous indignation in order to help secure higher turnout of his own base and discourage liberal turnout without waking the sleeping giant that is the fully activated voter mobilization operations of Democratic legislators on Beacon Hill. If Coakley stays way ahead and her opponents chose party unity over personal ambition, then Baker’s use of the “corruption card” will have to be much more subtle.

To be more specific, it looks like Baker’s ability to exploit the probation mess will depend quite a bit on the strategic choices of Steve Grossman over the next month or so. If Grossman takes the advice of journalist David Bernstein, who recently argued that unless he aggressively attacks Coakley as a choker who will crumble this fall just as she did in that infamous 2010 Special US Senate election, then Baker’s ability to demagogue the Democratic corruption issue will be enhanced. If Grossman doesn’t take this bait …I mean advice… then Baker will have to play the corruption card more cautiously.

I wonder if the pro-Grossman super PAC will effectively take this potentially crucial strategic choice away from Grossman’s campaign team and pursue the harsher anti-Coakley route on its own. Also, will conservative super PACs ignore Baker’s strategic interests and spend big attacking Democratic corruption on Beacon Hill without regard for the strategic consequences? I guess we’ll know the answers to these questions soon enough.

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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6 Responses to Probation Mess: Perception v. Strategic Reality in Guv’s Race

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Duquette,

    Thanks for writing this. Academia has had interesting things to say about persuasion versus turnout, and I have started to follow this area with interest.

    (For those new to this subject, fellow GOP Tech/Data Archon Patrick Ruffini wrote an excellent and very readable piece on this subject here about Democrats and 2014.)

    As for your idea that Baker would benefit from the legislature not fully activating their local machinery, well… OK. But certainly they want a Democratic governor and many Democratic activists will ask them to get involved, and we just read about a new SuperPAC to do GOTV in the cities for the Democratic party this November. So I wonder, why they wouldn’t cooperate in any case? Sure, there is a question of urgency. But most of them aren’t facing any serious competition, so I guess I don’t understand what Baker could say that would motivate them to work hard, in a way that requests from Democrats would not.


    • Jerold Duquette says:


      First of all, Ruffini’s piece is excellent. Thanks for linking it. Here’s my thinking on the difference between MA state legislators conducting campaign season business-as-usual versus conducting business while the narrative of a gov’s race casts an ethical shadow over them. If the shadow is long enough, many will have to work harder to maintain their tan, rested, and ready pose, a pose that is important to avoiding serious competition from both other Dems and Republicans in the district. The people doing the hard work of voter mobilization for st. Legislators have relationships with these reps/sens; they value these relationships and will invest more energy in their work if that work is important to protecting the value of these relationships. In other words, when the motivations of the legislators intensify, so to do the motivations of those they count on to mobilize voters.

      Another point that I think is important to remember is that while most rank-in-file Dems want a Dem Guv, the assumption that leg leaders are as enthusiastic about having a Dem Guv is very debatable. As you know, the Dems on top in the MA leg exercise tremendous influence over their members; they have a great deal of control over members’ prospects and as such a great deal of motivational influence over members. If Baker were to make the Leadership poster boys for corruption, how do you suppose that might change the signals from leadership to their members regarding supporting the top of the ticket?

      Baker will pull his punches a bit here (especially if Dems are united behind their nominee) so that legislators will focus on separating themselves from Beacon Hill shanaigans, rather than on defending their leadership with both their voter persuasion and mobilization resources.

      The super PAC angle you astutely recognized is the real wild card here Ed. The impact of these outfits is hard to predict.

    • Jerold Duquette says:

      Another thing your question and Ruffini’s piece makes me think about is the difference between the Mass Dems statewide coordinated campaign capabilities in 2014 and 2002. The software-based op that helped elect both Patrick and Obama twice didn’t really exist in 2002. This reality is probably being under-appreciated by most folks evaluating the present viability of the Republican playbook in Guv races that seemingly got Weld, Cellucci, and Romney across the finish line. It also..I’m now thinking.. probably adds another element to the calculations Baker must make about how directly he can/should attack Democrats.

      • Ed Lyons says:

        Professor Duquette,

        First, as a lover of language, my highest praise for your original metaphor: “If the shadow is long enough, many will have to work harder to maintain their tan, rested, and ready pose, a pose that is important to avoiding serious competition from both other Dems and Republicans in the district.” Outstanding! I will re-use that with attribution!

        As for the other matters. I have been studying the Dems infrastructure, and I am aware of what we (the MassGOP/Baker) has. I am also aware of what the state-of-the-art is that the SuperPACs can buy. (I actually know the Obama tech people professionally and saw a few in Silicon Valley at a conference recently.) I can say the following (this is all public, though not necessarily easy to find):

        – AG Coakley’s people and the new Democratic SuperPAC will have the same base infrastructure. They will use somewhat different tools to manipulate and improve the underlying data. Coakley’s people are not state-of-the-art, but some liberal interest groups here are. Will they connect with Coakley? I don’t know. (Campaign finance loopholes allow SuperPACs, campaigns, parties collaborate anonyously without anyone knowing it as they strip out the submission data for all identifying information for who improves information about voters. Everyone pretends they don’t know where the assistance is coming from. This is called a lack of coordination for the regulators.) This means that the Dem SuperPACs will do stuff to improve data about urban voters and stick that into the Democrats’ voter database (VAN, et. al) and aside from their own GOTV, they will give Coakley’s people better info.

        – The MassGOP has similar infrastructure, but in their case, out-of-state orgs like the Republican Governor’s Association are probably going to do advertising and not improve the voter data file or the infrastructure. As for Republican SuperPACs, I have not heard of any arriving, but maybe. I think the difference is that the right-wing groups will do ads and not help the GOTV. I would love to be wrong. (I have no specific insider info here, and would not reveal it if I had it.)

        – One of the reasons that superPACs get involved in statewide races is that they want to make up for a lack of enthusiasm among various parties inside a state, in terms of coordination. So the new democratic SuperPAC is meant to make up for complacency and apathy among Democrats from cities who are too lazy and protected to do anything. Will they be able to be effective? I don’t know. So they can send people door-knocking and do surveys. That will help. Can they really do street-level GOTV? I doubt it.

        – The MassGOP has advertised in the past year (publicly) that they are doing a coordinated campaign statewide, too. Are they? Yes. Are they as advanced as the Dems? Not yet. They are somewhat beind, but no longer a few years behind. They are making good progress, and I am happy. Can we leverage all the stuff the Democrats can? No, because we have fewer reps and orgs in the game. To your point, if the Dem politicans don’t muster, then it is the MassGOP and Baker versus Coakley, the Mass Dem state organization, and the SuperPACs. Who has the advantage? Probably the Dems. But tech leaders like me in the MassGOP have a few ideas that the Dems do not. 😉

        We shall see how this plays out.

  2. Christopher says:

    Just a nitpick: Our legislative branch is the General Court rather than the General Assembly.

  3. Jay Gold says:

    >To the folks running the Coakley, Grossman, and Baker campaigns public opinion about headline grabbing events, as measured in campaign season media polls, is much less important than most people (and most media analysts) assume.

    So is it much more important to the folks running the Berwick campaign? Or have we decided that Don doesn’t exist?

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