Keeping the customers ‘satisficed’

The barely contested mayoral election is a sign of the political times in Boston. But it's nothing to get excited about

This year’s election campaign for mayor of Boston has hardly revved the city’s engines. But at least somebody is running against Tom Menino. Four years ago, Boston held a mayoral election with only one name on the ballot, an acute embarrassment in a city renowned for its politics. But the 2001 race is barely an improvement, with hardly anyone in the press or the public paying much attention to the feeble challenge Mayor Menino is facing, at least formally, on the November ballot.

Menino’s opponent, City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen, has gotten little media coverage since last spring, when she was forced to admit that she’s had trouble paying taxes and making student-loan payments when they were due. Once upon a time, such minor transgressions would never have derailed a Boston political campaign. In 1945, the legendary James Michael Curley was elected to a fourth term as mayor while under federal indictment for mail fraud. Curley’s foes in the Good Government Association (the original “goo-goos”) would probably be pleased that Davis-Mullen has paid a price for her ethical lapses, but they would probably be surprised that so little else she has done since, in her seemingly futile attempt to unseat Menino, has been considered newsworthy at all. And they might have misgivings about an election that has all the suspense of a Road Runner cartoon.

Boston isn’t the only city where the incumbent seems unbeatable. Two years ago, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley won with 72 percent of the vote against a four-term US congressman, providing a sharp contrast to that city’s tight mayoral races of the 1980s. In 1995, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell had little trouble winning a second term, even with the city lagging behind New York and Boston in terms of economic growth and crime reduction. (Term limits forced Rendell out in 1999.) Four years ago, New York’s Rudolph Giuliani cruised to re-election with 58 percent; in light of his post-September 11 performance, Giuliani may stay on a few months while his elected successor waits in the wings.

And it isn’t just this year. As Menino heads toward what appears to be a pro forma vote, he can take comfort in the knowledge that no Boston mayor has been defeated since 1949, when Curley pressed his luck with a bid for a fifth term. (The closest call for a sitting mayor came in 1975, when then-state Sen. Joseph Timilty came within a few thousand votes of denying Kevin White a third term.)

What accounts for the lopsidedness of this fall’s Boston election–and the many other municipal elections that look so much like it? For one thing, there’s money. At the end of August, The Boston Globe reported, Menino had $1.37 million in his campaign chest, against Davis-Mullen’s $12,600. There’s nothing surprising about the contributions to Menino; developers and others who do business with the city have always found it prudent to fill the sitting mayor’s campaign coffers. The more interesting question is why so few people are willing to invest in Davis-Mullen’s political career. Presumably, a $500 contribution would make more of an impression on Davis-Mullen than on Menino. If Davis-Mullen’s stock were to rise, the small-time investors who were with her from the beginning could see quite a pay-off.

But aside from people looking to build skyscrapers or acquire liquor licenses, no one looks to City Hall for favors anymore. In Style Versus Substance, a 1984 book about Boston Mayor Kevin White, local writer George V. Higgins described the “old and proven” way of choosing a candidate to back in a Boston mayoral election: “First, you determine which of the contenders with a chance of victory is likeliest to make sure that your boy gets a job with the city, and then you put a sign up for that fellow in the yard of your three-decker.” These days, a better way to provide for your children would be to sell that three-decker and skip town with the profits.

A big-city mayor no longer serves as a one-man employment office. He’s more like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and the voters are stockholders who don’t pay much attention to the guy in charge as long as the dividends keep coming in. Unless there’s obvious malfeasance at the top, elections, like annual stockholders’ meetings, are a formality. (Perhaps Davis-Mullen could lift her spirits by renting the 1956 fantasy The Solid Gold Cadillac, in which Judy Holliday’s persistent questions at a stockholders’ meeting lead to a job with the company.) Boston’s stock keeps rising–crime’s down; construction’s up–and that makes Menino a popular chairman of the board, one who’s pretty much safe from the threat of a hostile takeover.

Before getting all worked up about the demise of Boston politics, it would be best to think through what it means that the power of incumbency has become so overwhelming that the very act of holding an election seems an exercise in futility. Sure, it could mean the death of democracy in a great American city. But it could also mean that the citizens of that great city don’t see much to get democratic about.

When reformers wring their hands over the political mismatch between incumbent Goliaths and their challenger Davids, they are longing for elections to be something they almost always are not: an exercise in rational decision-making by voters. Anything that distorts that rationality–any factor that tilts the “level playing field” of politics–becomes an aberration to be reformed. Money is the obvious one, so reformers propose spending caps, public financing of campaigns, and free television time–all attempts to give challengers a fighting chance against incumbents with bulging war chests.

But the leveling impulse goes further. At times, today’s goo-goos seem to be searching for the political equivalent of that unit-pricing tag now mandatory on supermarket shelves–an aid for political comparison shopping. Debates are one favorite, especially if the podiums can be adjusted to obscure any difference in the candidates’ height. Even better are the charts that take up whole pages in the newspaper comparing the candidates’positions on key issues. These even drain good looks and eloquence out of the decision-making calculus.

How odd that the progressive cause of electoral fairness should subscribe to the logic of a most conservative economic theory: the rational actor model. According to this model, individuals make decisions after carefully weighing the costs and benefits of each option. If a person has no preference for the taste of Coke or Pepsi, for example, he’ll naturally buy the lower-priced beverage. Translated into politics, this theory treats elections as events in which voters evaluate candidates side by side to decide which one is the best value. (It is perhaps less surprising that recent candidates who seemed to rely on rational-actor assumptions in their quixotic campaigns hailed from business backgrounds. Multimillionaires Ross Perot and Steve Forbes apparently thought they could be elected president by persuading voters to do a cost-benefit analysis of their budget and tax proposals.)

But in the real world, the actors are not so rational. Consider those magazine features that rank American cities on economic and quality-of-life issues, helping readers to determine the place that best matches their needs. Few people who take such a survey will find that the “best” city for them is the one where they currently live. But who would pick up and move on the basis of this lazy-afternoon activity? Unless you’re terribly unhappy where you are now, there’s no decision to be made at all. And if your city has a mayor who seems honest and reasonably capable, you might feel the same way about him.

There is an alternative to the rational actor model for explaining all sorts of decision-making, including politics: “satisficing.” A hybrid of “satisfying” and “sufficing,” satisficing is the act of choosing the first, not necessarily the best, of the options that seem acceptable. A good-enough choice that is close at hand will always win out over any alternative that is more of a reach, even if it is superior.

The term was coined in 1956 by systems theorist Herbert Simon, who explained that “organisms adapt well enough to ‘satisfice’; they do not, in general, ‘optimize.'” Designer Stewart Brand put it even more succinctly in his 1994 book How Buildings Learn: “Satisficing doesn’t try to solve problems. It reduces them just enough.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the democratic process.

Satisficing explains why food companies pay grocery chains to place their products near store entrances, or at eye level on tall shelves. It explains why people watch bad television programs that follow good ones on the same channel, even in this era of remote controls and VCRs. The satisficing theory also fits a recent study of election returns by Ohio State University’s Jon Krosnick, who discovered a slight advantage in being listed first on the ballot, at least for minor offices, when voters knew relatively little about the candidates.

Menino could have beaten anybody, but that doesn’t mean a competitive election would have been a waste of time.Brand points out that most home repairs follow the satisficing model. When he found that a light switch in his new home was too low, he turned it on and off with a stiff wire, saving himself the bother of moving the switch plate up a few inches. When the wind blew around his stack of fax paper, he didn’t move the machine but took advantage of a lead paperweight that happened to be lying around. Our political system is full of such lead paperweights–how else to explain the Bush dynasty, in which the unremarkable son of an unremarkable former president is elected president largely on the basis of family lineage?

Indeed, satisficing best explains all sorts of laws of political succession. When Mayor Ray Flynn left the city to become ambassador to the Vatican in 1993, the lead paperweight was Tom Menino, rolled over from his post as city council president. A few months later, voters decided that all the important papers were still in place, so Menino had little trouble winning a full term in his own right. Indeed, nothing seems to have changed Boston voters’ minds since, to the point that no credible candidate was willing to take him on in 1997, and the one candidate taking him on this year can’t seem to do so credibly.

Satisficing has also served the state’s Republican Party well in holding onto the State House corner office. So far, the gubernatorial baton has been handed from Bill Weld to Paul Cellucci to Jane Swift, with voters asked for their approval only after the fact. With all due respect to Swift, if she is elected next year in her own right it will not be because, on balance, she’s the best candidate for the job, but because she’s already governor–acting or not–and the voters have found no compelling reason to throw her overboard.

Returning to the home-improvement analogy, long-shot candidates like Davis-Mullen tend to run as what Brand calls “interior designers”–those rare individuals who seek out optimal rather than makeshift solutions (and, in the non-metaphorical version of the profession, get paid handsomely for it). Davis-Mullen tried on this role in a July 19 speech, saying, “Our current mayor thinks that attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies is the same as discussing the issues with residents and focusing on neighborhood problems.” She promised to conduct a “needs assessment” and then draw up a specific development plan for each neighborhood–sounding very much like the decorator who comes up with a scheme for every room in the house when all you wanted was a couple of rugs that don’t get so dirty.

Interior-design candidates appeal to newspaper columnists and policy wonks (egghead journalist Christopher Lydon didn’t need to spend much money to get media attention when he ran for mayor of Boston in 1993), but they rarely win elections. As long as the incumbent has some concrete achievements he can point to (think of Menino’s Main Streets storefront improvements), voters seem to show little interest in someone who wants to start everything from scratch.

Does satisficing theory mean that incumbents are invulnerable? Not always. Scandals, tax hikes, and especially horrific crime sprees can lead to a mayor’s forced retirement. Legend has it that Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic was defeated in 1979 because the streets weren’t plowed quickly enough after a snowstorm. But even these catastrophes don’t guarantee a serious challenge to an incumbent. Rather, competitive elections occur when a large segment of the population does not view the incumbent as the first acceptable choice. Various factors can undermine an incumbent’s acceptability in a way that leaves a substantial portion of the electorate “unsatisficed” and willing to vote for a challenger, even if the office-holder is neither incompetent nor corrupt. But, as we can see, none of these is at work in Boston this year:

  • PARTY AFFILIATION. Presidential elections are nearly always competitive because of firm loyalty or ideological predilection toward a political party. Many voters won’t cross party lines even to support an otherwise acceptable incumbent. But mayoral elections in Boston are non-partisan, so the Republican Party doesn’t get a spot on the ballot. (Even if it did, the GOP is so weak in the city that its endorsement would do a candidate little good.) In contrast, New York City has a plethora of official parties–not just Democratic and Republican, but also Liberal, Conservative, and, occasionally, other parties that don’t survive more than a single election. Incumbents in the Big Apple generally win the backing of more than one party, but the splintered electorate pretty much guarantees an opposition vote of 40 percent–enough to keep elections lively even when the sitting mayor is strong.

  • RACE AND ETHNICITY. For the past 30 years or so, virtually every hard-fought big-city mayoral election has involved bloc voting by racial or ethnic groups. In New York, David Dinkins won near-unanimous support from black voters both as a challenger and as an incumbent. Rudy Giuliani, in turn, claimed the white Catholic vote when he challenged Dinkins and again when he ran for re-election. Chicago and Philadelphia had similarly polarized electorates in the 1970s and ’80s, though black voters in those cities now seem willing to support white incumbents. James Hahn won this year’s open-seat election for mayor of Los Angeles thanks to a coalition of blacks and whites; if he faces a strong challenge in 2005, it will be based in the barrios that supported the city’s first Latino candidate for mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. As balkanized as Boston has always been, ethnicity has not driven city politics for some time. At the beginning of the 20th century, Boston’s split between Yankee and Irish voters meant that no incumbent was truly safe, but even by the time Curley became mayor in 1914, the former group was no longer much of a factor. In 1983, Boston’s minority enclaves–small by big-city standards at the time–rallied behind Mel King in his run for mayor, but after his landslide defeat never flexed their electoral muscles again. Today, Boston’s white population is slightly less than half of all residents, but the city’s bare minority-majority is so ethnically diverse and politically disorganized that it’s far from certain any “rainbow coalition” could pose a threat to Menino even in 2005, should he run for a fourth term.

  • GEOGRAPHY. If voters tend to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt, they can be even more charitable toward their neighbors. A strong geographical base in the southern reaches of the city helped Joseph Timilty make serious runs against Kevin White in 1975 and 1979. To voters in his state Senate district–including parts of Dorchester that were about as far from White’s home on Beacon Hill as you could get–Timilty may have been as much the incumbent as White. Geography can also become a factor when a neighborhood’s voters get into the habit of voting against City Hall, no matter who the incumbent is. South Boston, primed by years of voting against White, was the only neighborhood that gave Ray Flynn trouble when he ran for re-election in 1987. Flynn had been a Southie favorite son, but his aspirations as a racial healer–expressed in part by moves to integrate public housing developments in the neighborhood–made him just another City Hall tyrant. Southie was also the only neighborhood (other than the two wards that made up challenger and then-Dorchester state Rep. James Brett’s home base) acting mayor Menino lost when he ran for his first full term in 1993. But geographical base may not be what it used to be, now that fewer voters live in the same neighborhood for their whole lives. Davis-Mullen is herself a case in point: She grew up and started her political career in South Boston, but now that she and her family have moved to a bigger house in West Roxbury, she can’t claim a lock on the votes of either neighborhood.

  • ISSUES. Every so often there’s an issue that can’t be finessed by the slickest incumbent. School desegregation was such a political landmine in Boston during the 1960s and ’70s. Kevin White, elected over South Boston’s Louise Day Hicks in 1967, tried to find a middle ground on the issue when he was mayor, but most opponents of court-ordered busing never trusted him. They backed Hicks again in 1971, and Timilty inherited their support four years later, even though he did not adopt Hicks’s incendiary rhetoric. There hasn’t been a comparable issue in Boston politics since then. (Police brutality, another issue with racial overtones, has influenced elections in New York and other cities, but it has not been a political flash point here.) At the national level, there are several yes-or-no issues that drive voters to the polls, including abortion and gun control. But even the most pressing of city issues–such as affordable housing and public education–rarely generate such focused passion. In novelist William Kennedy’s history of his native Albany, New York, where Erastus Corning served as mayor from 1942 to 1983 (!), Kennedy describes how local student activists once picked up, then quickly dropped, the issue of corruption in City Hall. “We focused more exclusively on the larger problems, like Nixon and the Vietnam War,” said one campus organizer. “It seemed easier to change the world than to change Albany.” You might say that Albany’s residents were mighty satisficed.

On these grounds, Menino has every reason to expect smooth sailing–this year, and perhaps as far as the eye can see. Menino’s reign could be jeopardized in the future if Boston falls on hard times, but it’s depressing to think that the return of a vibrant political scene is contingent upon the return of urban decay. Besides, kicking politicians out of office during a crisis is itself an example of satisficing, though not at its most effective: If Boston’s economy is hurt by a collapse in the mutual-funds market, for example, getting a new mayor probably isn’t going to help much in the long run.

Perhaps uncontested elections are a sign of stability, and we should be grateful that there’s not more to get excited about. By most measures, life in Boston has gotten better on Tom Menino’s watch, and it would be downright churlish of voters not to reward him for that. Given good times and unflagging popularity, Menino probably could have beaten any opponent in 2001.

Still, it doesn’t follow that a more competitive election would have been a waste of time. For at least a few months, the candidates and the voters might have been discussing some of the city’s long-range problems–schools, affordable housing, mass transit–that can’t be solved by noncontroversial programs such as Main Streets. A tough campaign might have also forced Menino to widen his circle of advisers and consider new policy initiatives, bringing change to City Hall even if the mayor stays the same.

That opportunity has been missed this year. The natural advantages of incumbency have become so powerful that running against Menino seemed like a fool’s errand to everyone (except Davis-Mullen) who considered a race. And the lack of suspense about Menino’s political future has given the media–and the public–little reason to take a close look at the mayor’s record in office or his future agenda.

Meet the Author

Satisficing, it seems, has triumphed over party machines, ethnic rivalry, journalistic muckraking, and other characteristics of the James Michael Curley era in Boston politics. We might as well get used to the concept. At least, it seems good enough for now.

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Boston.