Eight Things You Should Know About the Massachusetts Democratic Caucuses

No one agrees on what happened, so here are things that seem to be true.

Notwithstanding the fine but late-acting hamlets of Auburn, Bolton, Groveland, and Royalston, Massachusetts Democrats have wrapped up their caucuses. Predictably, nobody agrees on what happened.

So, here are some things I think are true, based on my conversations with campaigns and others, and my own observations.

1. The undecideds are shrinking. Let’s throw out the term “committed” at this point; the 3,000 or so delegates who have been picked are just like a pool of voters, whether they ran in support of a gubernatorial candidate or not. The campaigns are trying to identify how many of they plan to vote for who, and discovering that many “uncommitteds” have, in fact, made up their minds. Plus, the focus on the race, brought on by the caucuses, has prompted a lot of these delegates to make up their minds. What looked like some 50 percent up in the air now looks more like 25 percent or less.

… but the decideds might change their minds. (2.) Here’s a little secret: “ones,” in campaign vernacular—voters who have said they are definitely voting for the campaign’s candidate—do not all actually all vote for the campaign’s candidate. It’s not just that some fib; it’s that even very self-certain voters do change their minds over the course of a campaign. In theory, you might think that super, highly engaged, well-informed state convention delegates would be relatively immune to this, but in fact the opposite can be true. Many of them like to have a preferred candidate early, but also keep gathering information that can change their minds, sometimes multiple times. My sense is that there could be a lot of this among this year’s delegates.

3. Steve Grossman has the start he needs, sort of. Grossman had the organization to get the most delegates elected, plus the resources to track the process, identify elected delegates, and start polling and persuading them. He also has support of a large number of ex officio delegates (elected officials and so on). As things stand, he will most likely finish first in the delegate vote at the convention, and has a legitimate chance to get the majority (perhaps on a second or third ballot) needed to win the party endorsement he craves for added momentum. However, if Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem look like they’re going to make the ballot, activist interest might start peeling away from Grossman.

4. Don Berwick has some mojo. Berwick’s campaign is claiming to already have enough delegates to get 15 percent at the convention, which translates to at least 750 of them—even before the diversity add-ons. None of the other campaigns believe this number, although they also don’t agree with each other about where Berwick really stands. I think the 750 number is probably soft, but I am willing to believe that not only did Berwick pick up a lot of delegates, bit by bit, all over the state; but also that an increasing sense that he’ll make the ballot has prompted a lot of uncommitted delegates to back their ideologically kindred candidate Berwick (at least for now).

5. Martha Coakley can keep playing the long game. Coakley doesn’t expect to win the convention, but she obviously doesn’t want to be humiliated there, either. She seems to have done well enough that she shouldn’t have to worry about that. Rather than sweat the details—whether Grossman gets his 50 percent plus one, or whether she narrowly finishes third rather than second—it looks like Coakley will focus on the broader Democratic primary audience while her opponents obsess over the small, abnormal delegate pool in hopes of getting momentum out of the convention.

6. Juliette Kayyem remains on the cusp. Kayyem’s campaign is claiming to have the second-most delegates, behind only Grossman; that might be true, depending on how you define it, but probably not. It appears more likely that she has enough to keep moving forward, vying for the diversity add-on delegates (who might go for the closest thing to a young minority in the race), and persuading undecideds as she builds toward her 15 percent.

7. Joe Avellone would be a shock. Avellone’s path to 15 percent at the convention always depended upon him rallying moderates to the caucuses. That does not appear to have happened. While he did pick up delegates, it’s awfully hard to see how he can get on the ballot from here.

8. Excitement is minimal. I suspect that 75 percent of all caucus participants would be fine reshuffling the deck and starting over with five new candidates. OK, that might be an overstatement; but so far none of these candidates seems to really be ginning up the Democratic activists as far as I can tell. I’m not sure that will matter in the long run (it didn’t hurt Markey last spring), but it’s worth noting.

  • Michael Forbes Wilcox

    Good analysis, David. I think you are absolutely right to point out the fluidity of the delegate count/commitment. At this point, I am firmly uncommitted, but I have been ranking the candidates in my mind from day one, and if that constantly reshuffled ranking reflects the way others are thinking, it’s not clear where things will come out.

    A sensible delegate will pick a candidate who is not just aligned philosophically, but who also has a chance of winning; of being our next Governor. Name recognition is a huge issue for Kayyem and Berwick, but that is something that can be overcome.

    We’re 3 months away from the Convention, and that is an eternity in Massachusetts politics. I think the candidates are all going to have to work hard not just to win people over but to keep the people they already count as supporters. And that’s a healthy thing for the Party and ultimately for the Commonwealth.

  • Cooper Davis

    David, as the de facto political insider’s insider, I’d like to see a more detailed analysis of the caucuses, there are so many facets of the race being decided at the caucuses. Firstly, Mayor Walsh is looking to fill the void left by Menino in Boston. We have seen many Boston wards being swept by a Mayor’s slate, which I’m assuming will be used as poker chips in the political battle for influence. Secondly, I think Kayyem’s numbers are significantly overstated and her claims of being in second of committed delegates is disingenuous. There is no quantifiable way for her to gauge the commitment numbers of other campaigns, many of these commitments are happening under the table, or at caucuses that don’t have staff coverage. So for her campaign to imply that they are trailing only Steve in delegate commitment is one step past spin, to blatantly lying. I think because their campaign invested in t-shirts, the optics provide a picture of stronger support than is actually present. From my conversations, it seems of the two ‘outsider’ candidates Don is doing the best statewide, continuously picking up delegate spots from Western Mass, to the Cape & Islands. From discussions with folks across the state, Berwick has been picking up important bellwether towns from sweeping in Ipswich, and winning 7-8 delegates in Swampscott notably the home town of Charlie Baker. It seems Kayyem has pockets of strong support ie Cambridge, Belmont but she doesn’t seem to be building the strong statewide coalition that I’m seeing from the Berwick Campaign.