The Tightening Race for Massachusetts Governor

Five main questions to consider.

Photo via Associated Press

Photo via Associated Press

It’s not terribly surprising that the Massachusetts gubernatorial race appeared to tighten in the first few weeks after the primary. To a considerable extent, Martha Coakley is so well established a political figure that she is like an incumbent in this race, which means that many of the “undecideds” have really been “not-Coakleys” whose knowledge of Charlie Baker was too vague for them to say they’d cast a vote for him. Some number of them have firmed up as Baker voters (at least for now) as people returned from summer’s mental check-out; the primary focused the race and increased press coverage; and several million dollars worth of ads ran before their eyes.

Most of those ads have been run on Baker’s behalf; the Republican Governors Association (RGA) has reported spending $4.7 million so far, half on pro-Baker and and half on anti-Coakley ads, through its Massachusetts Super PAC. That’s in addition to the anti-Coakley ads run by a Super PAC in support of Steve Grossman, and ads from both Grossman and Don Berwick that criticized her.

The only ads countering all that with positive images of Coakley have been her own—and due to her shockingly poor fundraising, that only added up to some $500,000 or so through the primary, and perhaps a little more since.

Not too surprisingly, then, her public image has taken some lumps, dropping to roughly 45 percent favorable/40 percent unfavorable opinion of her, which has also contributed to the shift toward a neck-and-neck race. Meanwhile, there have been relatively few anti-Baker ads; the biggest has been a $1 million pre- and post-primary blitz by a Super PAC funded mostly by labor unions (AFSCME and Massachusetts Teachers Association). I don’t believe there were any anti-Baker ads running during the period of the most recent polls.

The state of the race is confirmed by no fewer than five newly released polls, which look like this:


So, that’s pretty consistent.

So, the race enters October as a toss-up, with some momentum on Baker’s side. A few big questions going forward:

1. Will Coakley’s image keep falling, or recover? I am told that funding is finally coming in for Coakley, as the Grossman elites (led by Shanti Fry) have joined ranks for the cause, and stalwarts such as Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick have led a charge. The state Democratic Party will report raising sa little over $900,000 in September, mostly after the primary (not including what I’m told will be a substantial transfer from Warren coming soon). The Democratic Governors Association is coming in strong, and labor is also ready to keep pitching in. EMILY’s List has opened a Massachusetts Super PAC to help. Coakley’s campaign itself, limited by the $500 individual maximum contribution, will still be limited, however—she and her running-mate Steve Kerrigan have barely a quarter-million dollars, combined, on hand as of the end of September. My reporting leads me to believe that at least one Super PAC will eschew the usual bash-the-opponent role, and attempt to buck Coakley up with positive spots soon on her behalf.

2. Will traditional Democratic voters “come home”? The polls vary quite a bit on how much of the Democratic Party vote Baker is winning, but the Coakley campaign seems to believe, and the polls seem to corroborate, that she is so far where she needs to be with true independents, but below where she should be with Democrats. In theory, that’s a self-correcting problem for her, as those Democrats eventually find something more troubling about Baker and his party than whatever their gripe is about Coakley. But again, opinions tend to be so strong about Coakley, those Dems might not be coming home this time.

3. Will traditionally low-turnout Democratic voters show up? Keep an eye on what we might call “Gateway Democrats”—minorities, single women, and union households in cities such as Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Springfield, and so on. Yes, Baker is doing a good job making inroads, but nevertheless the more of those Democrats who vote, the better for Coakley. Can Coakley get them out the way Deval Patrick and Barack Obama atop the ticket did? That’s a very big unknown right now.

4. Will the independent candidates gain a little traction? The current polls show Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick, and Scott Lively as non-factors now, pulling at most a combined five percent of the vote. But soon they’ll get the benefit of inclusion in televised debates, and we don’t yet know how much money Falchuk and McCormick plan to spend promoting themselves down the stretch. Of course, who they would pull votes from is another question.

5. Will Baker be able to keep up his high-wire act? So far, Baker has been a very, very good candidate. He has been disciplined, avoiding getting trapped into talking about his past (and some current) positions, and has pretty effectively taken away some key issues from Coakley. His performance at the Western Massachusetts consortium debate was solid. But he’s now entering the crunch time when he’ll have to maintain that performance under high intensity press and public attention (and, I assume, increasing attacks from Coakley). His ability to handle it might be the factor that answers all of the previous questions.