Massachusetts Gubernatorial Politics: One Theory

Do voters tend to care more about values or independence?

Over the past quarter-century (at least), Massachusetts voters have weighed two major factors in choosing a governor in the general election:

1. Which candidate do I trust more to represent my values, interests, and priorities?

2. Which candidate do I trust more to be independent of Beacon Hill’s entangling webs of influence?

Voters, in the macro sense, tend to have a presumptive default toward the Democratic nominee on the first question, and toward the Republican nominee on the second question. But, ultimately, the decision is candidate-specific. The values question is not entirely poisoned for Republicans as it is, for example, in a U.S. Senate race. And one need not be a Republican to be seen as a check on the legislature.

Republicans have been very good about nominating candidates who maintain the party’s presumptive independence—Beacon Hill outsiders—while minimizing the presumptive values deficit.

Democrats have a more mixed record. They have twice in the past 25 years nominated someone perceived as a real outsider. One was Deval Patrick, who combined that with the party’s values advantage to win easily in 2006, and comfortably in 2010, when his outsider cred was somewhat diminished.

The other was John Silber in 1990; by election time he had essentially ceded the values question to Bill Weld, who won a narrow victory.

The party has avoided nominating someone perceived as a true Beacon Hill insider with the possible exception of Mark Roosevelt in 1994, when very popular Bill Weld had both the values and independence sides wrapped up before the starting bell.

Twice before—and now a third time with Martha Coakley—Democrats have nominated someone seen as having one foot inside and one foot outside the Beacon Hill insiders’ web. Both Treasurer Shannon O’Brien in 2002, and Scott Harshbarger in 1998, were not of Beacon Hill the way that, say, Senate President Tom Birmingham would have been viewed, or probably even state senator Patricia McGovern, who were defeated in those two primaries, respectively.

Both O’Brien and Harshbarger got locked in nail-biter races against Mitt Romney and Paul Cellucci, respectively. Romney, perceived as a true outsider but suspect on values, narrowly won. Cellucci, suspect as an outsider but well-established on values, did as well.

Obviously in all of these elections there were many other factors at play as well. But I think this framework might at least explain which gubernatorial match-ups have been close, and which have not.

If the framework still holds, it suggests another close race between Coakley and Baker, with Baker holding a slight advantage as polling suggests that he has so far narrowed the values gap more than Coakley has narrowed the independence gap.

Of course, it’s very possible that changes in the state’s electorate, which have clearly altered the landscape in other elections, have also rendered this gubernatorial framework obsolete. We’ll learn soon enough.