On November 6th, all signs point to Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly re-electing both Senator Liz Warren, a Democrat, and Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican. Given the partisan polarization going on in states west and south of us, how has it come about that our voters decide so differently from theirs ?
The roots of our politics run far back in time; and many have commented at length upon our state’s unique political way. To that long history, I have not much to revisit in this column; yet I would like to list some current facts that support how we do :
( 1 ) 54 percent of our voters belong to no political party.
( 2 ) the two major parties that we do have — Democrats number about 36 percent, Republicans about 10 — lack structure, and to the extent they have it, said structure adopts positions the rank and file does not care much about
( 3 ) almost every Massachusetts elected wins her race in the Democratic primary, which means that every candid\ate who actually wants to win runs as a Democrat regardless of what he or she thinks about the issues.
( 4 ) municipal elections in Massachusetts are non-partisan. Thus party plays no part in the most local, most close to the voter, of all election contests
( 5 ) political patronage has almost disappeared here, which means that the only people who participate physically in campaigns, except for a candidate’s immediate family and close friends, are ideologues — a very small number — and special interest people. The rest of us watch from our doorstep. The precinct captains of old are gone.
( 6 ) the great ideological divides, many of them based in religion, have minimal presence here because with respect to them, the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters take the positions advocated by the national Democrats.
( 7 ) because that is true, Presidential elections are never contested in Massachusetts. No PAC money is spent here, no ground game is organized. Our stare is never in play. As a result, we are free to develop our own political customs, and we have done that.
( 8 ) The only issue divisions that matter much exist within the Democratic party, yet those have little sway except in a few legislative districts, because even most Democrats don’t care much about such arguments. The big argument this year was, has the legislature done its job of reform or did it fall short ? Two legislators — and only two — were defeated by the “it fell short” interest. A few others defeated “it fell short” challengers.
( 9 ) within our Republican party the big issue was, support for Trump. Governor Baker, who has kept his distance from Mr. Trump and has opposed him almost every time it really mattered, was challenged by a candidate for whom loyalty to Trump was almost a religion. In many states, distancing oneself from Trump was a fatal move within the Republican primary. Not so in Massachusetts. Baker defeated that challenger by 64 to 36.
Therein lies a story that tells us much about our state’s political customs :
Support for Mr. Trump among Massachusetts Republicans mirrors that of Republicans elsewhere : about 75 to 85 percent support him. Most of Governor Baker’s cadres support Mr. Trump, too. How, then, was Baker, who has nothing to do with Mr. Trump and has often said as much, able to win his primary by 64 to 36 ? The answer, as I see it, is that most Massachusetts Republican activists want to win. Baker has taken positions far to the left of most Massachusetts Republicans. He has signed bills no Republican Governor in any other state (except perhaps Maryland) would sign. He is an uncompromising social liberal and even, in his own way, a supporter of identity politics : how else explain his Latino Advisory Commission, the Black Community Advisory Group, or his out-front support for the newly formed LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce ? Yet he commands the work of a staff who, in many cases, have been recruited to Massachusetts from Republican operations in other,m far more partisan and conservative states.
Baker has built a support team of people who, had he not taken them on, would likely be working for Republican candidates in states whose politics we in Massachusetts reject. In doing so, he has set these political operatives on course into the political mainstream and thereby impacted the national Republican party generally, in ways not yet fully developed. I think that 2020 and beyond, we will see the consequences of what Baker has accomplished.
That is the inside effect. Most of us vote on the outside. Yet we, too, will be voting in a way that casts our state firmly into what observers are now calling “the exhausted majority.” (see the graph at the top of this column.) Probably a majority of Massachusetts voters will vote for both Baker and Warren. I can’t think of another state where that will be true this time around.
The rest of the nation sees Senator Warren as a “bold progressive.” We in Massachusetts view her differently. We see a professorial, charming and idealistic advocate — what my parents’ generation knew as an ADA, Adlai Stevenson/Hubertt Humphrey liberal — who can be careless sometimes but very judicious — and bipartisan — often enough. I think we know her correctly. She understands that she cannot depend on Democrats alone, not when these total only 36 percent — and run the gamut of political views; she , like Baker, has to win a good chunk of the 54 percent who belong to no party. No-party voters are, almost by definition, not ideologues on the political fringe. (The “exhausted majority” graph suggests that committed ideologues on the left total about eight percent of voters, and those on the right about six percent.) If the “exhausted majority” — voters who don’t live and die for an ideology — amount to 86 percent of all, they probably number 95 percent, at least, of those who belong to no party. A Massachusetts candidate has almost no choice but to adopt consensus views if she wants to win an election.
Consensus, therefore, is our state’s political watchword. No matter which political party you are campaigning with, in Massachusetts you either voice consensus views or you lose. For me, that’s the right result. The success of our state’s government and politics declares it.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere