The GOP’s corner office strategy

The GOP’s corner office strategy

Drawing Democrats in big numbers has been the key to a winning formula

While Massachusetts ranks as one of the bluest states in the nation, giving the average Demo­cratic presidential nominee a 20-point advantage over his GOP rival in the last 14 elections, four of the Bay State’s last five governors have been Repub­li­cans—an intriguing paradox.

With a wide-open race for governor looming in 2014, Republicans once again are hoping to take the State House corner office. They have tried to clear the field for Charlie Baker, the nominee in 2010, but victory is far from certain because the path is narrow for any Republican. Successful GOP nominees need to portray themselves as qualified fiscal managers, campaign as moderate-to-liberal on social issues, win support from Democratic voters, and find a way to deal with the gender gap.

Baker did not succeed in his first run for governor against incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010, but his initial moves in this campaign cycle show he is trying to right some of the wrongs of his last campaign. He is toning down his anger, shoring up his financial credentials by focusing on his rescue of Harvard Pilgrim and deflecting Big Dig financing concerns, and appealing to women by opening up about his private life.

The last eight gubernatorial elections have been split evenly, with four wins going to the Demo­cratic nominee (two each for Michael Dukakis and Patrick), and four wins going to the Republican nominee (two for William Weld, and one each for Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney). Table 1 shows the two-party vote percentage for the Democratic and Republican nominees for Massachusetts governor from 1982 through 2010, ignoring third-party candidates.

All of the Democratic wins, with the exception of Patrick’s most recent 2010 victory, were blow­outs, with margins of more than 20 points. All of the Rep­ublican wins, with the exception of Weld’s historic 1994 thrashing of Mark Roosevelt, were relatively close, with margins of 5 points or less.

In order to win in Massachusetts, a Republican gubernatorial candidate needs to build a coalition of Republicans, independents (unenrolled voters not formally aligned with either party), and Demo­crats.

The current party breakdown in Massachu­setts has 36 percent of the electorate registered as Demo­crat, 11 percent registered as Republican, and 53 percent registered as unenrolled.

While these percentages suggest that a Repub­lican could win an election with only Republican and independent votes, that’s unlikely since many unenrolled voters are independent in name only. An examination of public Massachusetts voter participation records indicates a significant portion of unenrolled voters only pull Democratic primary ballots, and a significant portion of unenrolled voters only pull Republican primary ballots, a strong indicator of partisanship.

Republican Charlie Baker is changing his campaign approach for 2014.

Pre-election and exit polling of recent state­wide races show GOP candidates have not garnered more than 68 percent of the independent vote statewide, the level Scott Brown achieved in his January 2010 special election win for the US Senate. A Repub­lican that wins 60 percent of the independent vote (very good by historical standards) and 95 percent of the Republican vote (also good), still loses when winning 20 percent of the Democratic vote.

Election Day exit polls show Republican Kerry Healey had only single-digit Democratic support in her loss to Patrick in 2006, and Baker’s lack of appeal with Democratic voters in 2010 was one of his key problems in finding a path to victory in that election. Table 2 provides polling data on Baker’s strength with Democrats during the 2010 election.

Some of Baker’s poor showing with Demo­crats in 2010 can be attributed to Patrick’s longstanding popularity with progressives—Patrick maintained over 75 percent favorability ratings with Demo­crats in the 2010 cycle, a wave year for Republi­cans who picked up large numbers of seats throughout the country and affected morale, enthusiasm, and financing in Massachusetts races.

Baker was seen as angry and edgy in his campaign against Patrick. He tried to counter that perception head-on in his recent campaign kickoff video for the 2014 race, using words such as “husband,” “father,” “community,” “positive,” and, most importantly, “bipartisan.” Baker’s success will likely depend on his ability to stay on this positive message during the heat of a campaign.

It is difficult to judge how the presence of third-party candidates affects Republican chances in Bay State gubernatorial elections. While conventional wisdom holds that the presence of Treasurer Tim Cahill in the 2010 race hurt Baker because of their similar positions on the issues, the polling evidence, including who Cahill supporters named as their second choice, is equivocal.

Over the last eight elections, there is no correlation between the number of candidates in the general election and success for either party (see Table 3). In fact, the average number of candidates in elections with Democratic winners and Republican winners is the same, at 3.25, and the two head-to-head races between only a Democrat and a Republican were split with a Democrat (Dukakis) taking one and a Repub­lican (Weld) the other. There is not enough data to draw conclusions about the effect of a candidate being unenrolled or from a particular third-party like Green-Rainbow except to say that there does not seem to have been a large third-party effect in the last eight gubernatorial elections.

A common thread for each of the successful GOP gubernatorial candidates over the past 30 years has been a concerted strategy to campaign as a capable manager who would be fiscally prudent with taxpayer dollars, combined with liberal positions on social issues, particularly abortion rights.

Some activists in the Massachusetts Republican Party complain that their candidates lose elections because they are RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), arguing that a candidate positioned as a “Democratic-Lite” alternative can’t win elections. Evidence, however, shows that successful statewide GOP candidates in Massachusetts have been decidedly moderate and close to mainstream Demo­crats on social issues but more conservative on fiscal matters.

Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci fit this moderate mold to a T, and Mitt Romney ran in a way that placed him in this same moderate category in 2002 (although he changed his strategy and positions when trying to win the Rep­ub­lican nomination for president in 2012). A GOP centrist strategy also allows the Republican candidate to label the Democratic rival as a liberal extremist. Weld, Cellucci, and Romney all effectively used this approach.

Baker fits the socially moderate mold, as he is in favor of abortion rights and gay marriage. He also attempted to use the sound-fiscal-manager argument in 2010, based on his time as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim. However, while serving as the Massachusetts secretary of administration and finance, Baker was the primary architect of a Big Dig financing scheme that has been blamed by some as responsible for causing a $1 billion per year underfunding of the Commonwealth’s transportation system.

Baker’s role in Big Dig financing received media coverage in his 2010 run, and even surfaced in Republi­can blogs as a reason to support his then-Republican rival Christy Mihos. It will be interesting to see whether recent tax hikes to pay for transportation needs become an issue in next year’s race. Demo­crats have blamed Baker for the transportation-funding deficit that necessitated the new levies, but Baker may well run against the tax in­creases that Democrats enacted.

Republican candidates generally receive more support from male voters, while Demo­cratic candidates receive more support from female voters. If approximately the same number of males and females vote, a winning candidate needs to make up a deficit of votes from one gender with a surplus of votes from the other.

Republicans who win statewide in Massachusetts typically follow one of two strategies: They either try to stay close to their Democratic rival in attracting women and win with strong male support, or they write off the female vote and try to win with sky-high male support.

Romney in his 2002 win over Democrat Shannon O’Brien was able to keep things relatively close with women. An average of exit polls from the race had Romney at -6.5 with women and +12 with men—adding these together we get an approximate gender balance margin of +5.5. This positive gender balance margin means that Romney made up his -6.5 point deficit with women by building up a larger margin of +12 with men.

Brown, in his victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in the January 2010 special election, was able to combine sky-high support from men with a relatively small deficit among women. A post-election Washington Post survey showed Brown at -3 with women, but up a whopping +14 with men—adding them together yields an approximate +11 gender balance margin.

Baker was able to win a slightly higher percentage of men than Patrick in the 2010 gubernatorial election with a +2 margin with men, but Patrick trounced Baker with women. The GOP nominee was behind with women by 25 points, giving Baker a negative gender balance margin of -23 points.

Baker is working to address the gender gap for the 2014 election by putting his family front and center in his campaign. “I care about being a good husband to my wife Lauren, and a loving and responsible father to our three children,” Baker says in one of the first sentences of his September kickoff video, against the background of photos of him and his family.

Baker could also achieve crossover appeal in the zero-sum game of politics by being blessed with an unappealing opponent. Weld received a priceless gift in 1990 with the nomination of Boston University president John Silber as his Democratic opponent. Silber was arguably more conservative than Weld on some issues and seemed to go out of his way to anger Massa­chusetts Demo­crats and the party establishment, being quoted as saying that mainstream Demo­crats would sell-out America.

The 1990 Weld-Silber race was also framed by sitting Democratic Gov. Duk­akis’s historically low approval rating. Voters were angry with Dukakis for a slumping economy and a difficult budget situation, which had led to Dukakis’s veto of a $210 million local aid package. Even with these advantages, Weld won the race by only a 3 point margin.

The Massachusetts GOP will likely try to make the 2014 race a recap of 1990, running against gas and (since repealed) software taxes enacted by the lame duck governor and the Democratic Legislature. How big a role the tax hikes will play in next year’s gubernatorial election will depend on the timing and success of any repeal effort and whether Baker can successfully frame the debate around the idea that voters need a Republican on Beacon Hill to act as a check on the Democrats. Baker can easily make this anti-Beacon Hill argument in the abstract, but he may have difficulty campaigning against a centrist legislative leadership that is increasingly drawing heat from the progressive left for not raising taxes enough to pay for needed education, transportation, and infrastructure.  

Meet the Author
Brent Benson analyzes politics and public policy in Massachu­setts using a quantitative approach on the Mass. Numbers blog (massnumbers.blogspot.com). You can follow him on Twitter @bwbensonjr.