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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