October 31, 2014

Massachusetts is a liberal state where bona fide conservatives cannot win statewide office. If a Republican candidate for governor is perceived to be “a conservative” he or she will almost certainly come up short on Election Day. For this reason Republican candidates must win the battle to frame the media narrative. To do so, they have to succeed in making the race about the candidates, not about public policy. If a gubernatorial race turns on policy disagreements, an uphill climb becomes an impossible journey for a Republican candidate in Massachusetts. Instead, Bay State voters have to be convinced that what they need in the corner office is a proven manager, not a politician. Win or lose on Tuesday, Charlie Baker has won the battle to frame the media narrative.

His virtual sweep of the state’s major newspaper endorsements is the starkest indicator of how thoroughly Baker succeeded in framing the media narrative in this race. A survey of these endorsements quickly reveals that all of them cite the personal characteristics of the candidates as crucial. The editors of the Springfield Republican were particularly overt in this respect writing “Baker is unflappable. And that quality may be the single most important factor that makes us want to put him at the helm of the commonwealth.” The fact that Governor’s don’t actually command the commonwealth’s government like a ship’s captain, or manage it like a corporate CEO for that matter, is nowhere evident in the recommendations of the state’s newspaper editors, or (I suspect) on the minds of average voters.

Baker’s campaign has done a marvelous job of blunting policy disagreements and framing the race as a question of who will best manage state government. In this his second run at the job, He has exorcized any hints of a conservative policy agenda. Baker didn’t even bring up welfare reform until the final few weeks when a very tight race compelled him to remind conservative voters (who might be frustrated with his “me too” liberalism) that he has not completely forgotten them or their policy priorities. When confronted with his welfare reform promises by reporters or debate moderators, however, Baker bends over backward to sound Clintonian on the issue. Though he talks a lot about not raising taxes (which requires no particular heroism for pols of any party), he talks a lot more about spending and investing. When pressed about how he would pay for his ambitious-not particularly conservative- plans, Baker happily pivots to his preferred narrative answering that better management of state resources will produce the necessary savings. Want details? He’ll happily direct you to one of his “comprehensive plans” on his web site, knowing full well that few reporters will find much to report in these plans and even fewer voters will ever read a single word of them.

Democrats have not effectively changed the storyline. They have not been able to make the race about public policy. Coakley’s campaign has in large part conceded that the race is about character and competence and has sought to contest it on these terms (Baker’s terms), emphasizing Coakley’s managerial skills and attacking Baker personally. Though Martha has tried to emphasize Charlie’s party label in accusing him of involvement in a “pay to play” scheme with the now somewhat infamous Republican governor of New Jersey, and she has hammered Baker on his decisions to lay off employees, raise premiums, and leave thousands without health insurance while earning a $1.7 million salary at Harvard-Pilgrim, all of these charges are about Charlie…and only Charlie. None of these attacks force Charlie to defend unpopular conservative policy stances. Baker, who hasn’t taken any unpopular conservative policy stances in his second campaign for Governor, simply responds by repeating (over and over) what everyone concedes, that he did a great job saving Harvard-Pilgrim. When Martha says she would have made “different choices” than Charlie she is conceding that voters should be concerned with the managerial styles or strategies of those they elect to the corner office.

Even Coakley’s counter-argument to Baker’s checks and balances pitch reinforces a candidate-centric narrative. She argues that having a governor who will check corruption on Beacon Hill isn’t about party labels, but rather about the person who is governor, and that as a career prosecutor she is better situated to check Beacon Hill. It’s not hard to see why an Attorney-General would see herself as being in a strong position to make this argument, but it takes very little in a political campaign to neutralize a candidate’s personal stature. Baker’s use of former Inspector-General Greg Sullivan’s impossible to prove accusation that Coakley discouraged him from pursuing Speaker Dimasi both undercuts Coakley’s credibility AND reminds voters that this election is about personal characteristics like credibility, competence, and temperament.

If Baker squeaks out a win on Tuesday, who will get the lion’s share of the blame? Why Martha Coakley, of course, but would that be fair? Not so much. Though candidates and campaigns clearly mean more in Massachusetts gubernatorial elections than they do in Massachusetts US Senate or presidential elections, and Coakley’s campaign could have made "different choices" in this race, a not insignificant portion of the blame for a Coakley defeat should go to the political media. Even when Coakley has tried explicitly to link Baker to his toxic party label, some in the media used these opportunities to portray Coakley as a weak candidate leaning on partisanship in order to distract voters. At the end of the day, the made-to-order “Martha Chokely” narrative clearly persisted. Despite the yeoman-like efforts of the MassPoliticsProfs to explain that the 2010 Special US Senate race did NOT turn on the candidates or their campaigns, Coakley’s image as a poor campaigner remained the default narrative. The wildly inaccurate polls during the Democratic Primary that showed Coakley with huge leads from start to finish over both her Democratic rivals and Charlie Baker were in fact made-to-order for Charlie Baker’s campaign. That the race between Coakley and Grossman would be a close and competitive one was clear to those looking at the full range of indicators, but the poll-driven media narrative throughout was that despite blowing it in 2010 Coakley would sail to a double-digit win on Primary Election Day. When she didn’t do that, beating Grossman by only six points, any hope of a general election media narrative that didn’t feature or facilitate a “Coakley choke watch” was dashed. 

With just days before the polls open this race is a nail-biter. If Baker wins he will have done so by effectively framing the race and the media narrative, by shedding or camouflaging his conservative policy inclinations, and by upgrading his campaign’s voter-contact, mobilization, and GOTV efforts just enough. If Coakley wins, she will have done so despite her inability to frame the race in partisan policy terms, thanks to her personal political capital earned over a long and successful political career in the state and because of the organizational and structural advantages that her party label affords her.

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