Governor, Senate challengers struggle mightily in quest for attention
Is anybody watching?
A half dozen would-be opponents to Senator Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker are building their campaigns, crisscrossing Massachusetts, issuing press releases, hiring staff, making ads, and doing all the other things important statewide campaigns do.
So far the two top-of-the-ticket would-be blockbusters have been busts, as voters hit the electoral snooze button through spring. There are plenty of other contests drawing voter attention further down the ballot, and some potentially significant ballot questions slated for this fall.
But challengers to Elizabeth Warren and Charlie Baker are attracting little interest from the media, lackluster fundraising, and very low poll numbers. How low? In the most recent WBUR poll, an average of 73 percent of voters have never even heard of the Democrats running for governor and Republicans running for Senate.
Successful candidates have tended to be much better known at this point in the cycle. In early 2006, 35 percent of voters had never heard of Deval Patrick; same for Charlie Baker in 2010. Only 14 percent of voters had never heard of Elizabeth Warren in February of 2012, before she went on to beat Scott Brown by 8 points.
There were past candidates with comparable name ID at this point in the cycle, but they did not fare very well. In 2014, three of the Democratic contenders for governor were in a similar range as the current challengers. Two failed to make it through the party convention, and the third came in last in the primary. Steve Grossman was somewhat better known, and came surprisingly close to winning the party primary. Martha Coakley was the only Democrat with high name ID due to her term as state Attorney General and her unsuccessful 2010 Senate run. She won the party primary and came within a whisper of becoming Governor.
Republicans running for Senate in 2014 fared even worse. Republican challenger Brian Herr was unfamiliar to 82 percent of voters at this point. He went on to lose to incumbent Senator Ed Markey in by 24 points.
History would suggest, then, that the 2018 candidates have a steep climb towards basic name recognition, let alone competitiveness against popular incumbents. A majority of Massachusetts voters have consistently favorable views of both Senator Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker, according to the last few WBUR polls. Warren can be polarizing: her supporters love her and her detractors are strongly negative towards her. Baker, on the other hand, has few passionate supports or detractors, and many who are somewhat favorable or rate various aspects of his job performance as “fair.”Challengers also have to compete for attention with the 24/7 reality show unfolding in Washington. It’s hard to break through when every hour of every day brings twists and turns and astonishing headlines. With all the drama, voters just may not have enough bandwidth to learn about their choices for Senator and Governor, especially when they are largely happy with the Senator and Governor they have now.
There are 5 months to primary day, and 2 more months from there to the general election. No matter how little the candidates are known, someone will make it to the general election. But history indicates that it’s quite late in the cycle for a candidate this unknown to voters to ultimately be successful.