Is the Conventional Wisdom About the Convention Crumbling?

Let's just say it's no longer very clear who will join Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman on the ballot.

We are about halfway between the end of the Democratic party caucuses and the June 14 state convention, so I’ve been checking in with people in and around the gubernatorial campaigns to see where they think things are heading.

Naturally, opinions differ depending on the observer’s biases.

But there is a growing sense among some observers that the earlier conventional wisdom, which held that the large swaths of undecided delegates meant that both Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem would join Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman in clearing the 15 percent first-ballot hurdle to qualify for the ballot.

The new thinking comes from some who see the undecideds shrinking and the math getting harder, not easier.

Everyone I talk to agrees that the Grossman and Coakley campaigns are working hard to maximize their first-ballot tallies—rather than just ensure a comfortable cushion over 15 percent and then devote efforts toward a broader audience. Grossman wants to make news by reaching 50 percent and securing the official party endorsement on the first ballot; or, failing that, score a big enough win over Coakley to get a big media bounce. For flip-side reasons, Coakley wants to recruit as many delegates as possible to minimize Grossman’s win. Grossman seems to be concentrating more on ex officios and Coakley more on rank-and-file, but they’re both going after as many as they can get.

That doesn’t mean they can get those delegates they’re going after. But there is also a sense that none of the other three candidates—Berwick, Kayyem, and Joe Avellone—have made much headway in consolidating anti-establishment support.

If, as many believe, Grossman gets around 45 percent, and Coakley gets close to 30 percent, that leaves just 25 percent or so to go around. Both Berwick and Kayyem have their core of supporters who are going to show up and vote for them. Even those who think Kayyem is a sinking ship don’t expect her to get less than 8 percent, and most believe Berwick will top 10 percent. Avellone’s core might be smaller (if these observers are correct), but its membership is A) not insignificant, B) unlikely to switch to the liberal alternatives, and C) likely to show up, since they’re mostly from in and around the convention host city, Worcester.

Basically, if Grossman and Coakley combine to take more than 70 percent of the delegate vote, it becomes tough for even one other candidate to clear the 15 percent bar. At 70 percent, one of the others should; at 65 percent or less, then maybe two of them.

Now, there are those who think the remaining undecideds (probably down below 20 percent) should break heavily to those anti-establishment candidates. That’s been the conventional wisdom, anyway.

But I’m not sure I buy it. Most of those delegates who we think of as lefty anti-establishment buck-the-system types are activists who got drawn into party activity via Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, who remain their favorite Massachusetts pols. It’s hard to be reflexively anti-establishment when your heroes are the establishment—and working side by side with the establishment candidates. In other words, I’m not so sure that Avellone, Berwick, or Kayyem are looking all that much more Patrickesque or Warren-like than Coakley and Grossman.

I still think that it’s likely a third candidate will make the ballot, and entirely possible that four will. But the conventional wisdom about that is definitely shifting.