Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In #MAgov, Blame Everybody—Springfield, Super PACs, the Wealthy—Except Martha Coakley

"I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for," says Roy Hobbs in The Natural—and, one imagines, Martha Coakley on Wednesday, November 5. The Democratic Coakley, as you surely know by now, had just lost her second high-profile election in five years in my home state of Massachusetts, supposedly the bluest state of them all. A figure of national ridicule for "blowing" (scare quotes definitely required on that one) Massachusetts's special US Senate election in 2010, "Martha Chokely" cemented her place as this century's biggest political loser when she fell, 48.5% to 46.6%, to Republican Charlie Baker in this year's open-seat race for Massachusetts governor.

Or so goes the narrative. And if there's one thing you should take away from following this blog, it's that narrative—in politics, baseball, or wherever—tends to obscure more factual, data-driven analysis. In this case, the nation's first impression of Coakley from 2010 refused to step aside for the 2014 truth: Coakley ran as strong a campaign as Massachusetts Democrats could ask for. From day one of the primary, she polled better against Baker than her even more flawed Democratic foes. Even as outsiders crowed about editorial boards' support for Baker, the endorsements they didn't read almost unanimously took pains to praise Coakley as an outstanding public servant and a solid candidate. And an 11th-hour survey of Massachusetts political insiders noted that Coakley successfully "reversed two key perceived flaws of her 2010 US Senate campaign: she worked impressively hard, and she built a superb field organization." A local perspective makes it abundantly clear: this loss wasn't Martha Coakley's fault.

Rather than assign blame, it's more productive to give credit: in this case, to Charlie Baker, who ran an incredibly impressive campaign—the strongest by a Republican in the Bay State in at least a decade. Baker, too, learned from his own 2010 defeat (in this case, a winnable gubernatorial race in a Republican wave year), retooling himself as "Charlie Baker 2.0": a more compassionate, more accessible, happier warrior than his aggressive 2010 self. The campaign also had a strong message ("Charlie Baker's no ideologue; he's a moderate retooler of a status quo that needs retooling") that passed the critical test of making fair-weather Democrats comfortable voting for, and publicly supporting, him. And, crucially, Baker had the means to publicize that message. Thanks to ample outside support from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), Baker and his allies far outaired Democrats on broadcast TV. The former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and a fixture of Boston's financial elite, Baker also had little trouble lapping Coakley in fundraising.

The easiest way to slam Coakley is to say that it's really really hard for a Democrat to lose in deep-blue Massachusetts. But with these headwinds, and the rising Republican tide nationally, there was no way any Democrat was going to hit the comfortable performance benchmarks the party has grown accustomed to seeing in presidential years. Compared to the average top-of-the-ticket Democrat since 2008, Coakley ended up underperforming by 9.5 points statewide.

That's important context—but it's not the whole story. The dropoff Coakley experienced was hardly uniform across the state. She actually succeeded at holding onto usually Democratic votes in certain areas—yet her dropoff in other regions was especially steep. Apply a knowledge of the state's political geography to the town-by-town election results (a level of electoral detail I'm proud to say is available only in New England), and it becomes clear that the Republican takeover of the corner office was thanks to Baker's strengths, not Coakley's weaknesses.

The Rising Massachusettsan Electorate

There is a widespread assumption among the other 49 states that Massachusetts is a hand-holding liberal assimilated collective. It's not. Massachusetts is rife with the same internal divisions of socioeconomic status, geography, race, and, yes, party as exist in other states. And, like other states, it is changing. One of the defining struggles for power in Massachusetts in recent years has been between the clout of the white elite—who, in many differing forms, have dominated state politics for centuries—and the increasingly diverse, and growing, population of the state's cities. These newest Bay Staters don't much resemble the Beacon Hill gentry, racially or economically, gender-identity-wise or age-wise. They are immigrants, from Brazil, Cape Verde, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, or elsewhere; they are the next generation of the state's longstanding and long-suffering minority population; they are the city-dwelling urbanists, gays, hipsters, and yuppies who have settled in the state since Boston's renaissance as one of America's "cool" cities.

While the state's business elite was once frequently able to convince the overwhelmingly white electorates of the 1990s to elect like-minded, business-oriented Republican governors, today the "rising Massachusettsan electorate" has made that increasingly difficult. Minority voters specifically have gone from a drop in the bucket (5% of the 1998 electorate) to a critical voting bloc (21% in 2008) almost overnight. According to an excellent analysis by CommonWealth magazine, these new voters are making Massachusetts's cities, in particular, more reliable Democratic vote banks than ever before. Boston, as well as the equally important "Gateway Cities" that ring around it (Worcester, Lowell, Fall River, and more), have shifted left by double-digit margins in just the past decade or so, coinciding with the emergence of the new electorate.

The potential Republican path to victory has narrowed accordingly. Governors Weld, Cellucci, and Romney skated into the State House on some very thin ice (consistently, margins of three to five points), but Republicans fell right through when the Bay State's new faces started adding their voices beginning in 2006. Urban voters were instrumental in twice electing Deval Patrick the state's first African American governor; then, in 2012, Elizabeth Warren used a powerful GOTV operation in cities to topple Scott Brown and earn election to the US Senate. For Coakley and the Democrats, then, the 2014 campaign was all about proving that the GOP's window in Massachusetts had closed completely—that the urban coalition was the permanent new kingmaker of state politics.

Baker, of course, had other ideas, and much ink was spilled about his unusual strategy to reverse Republican losses in cities: he spent most of his time campaigning in and talking about them. For much of the fall, Coakley and Baker went head to head for urban voters; everyone, including Coakley herself, knew that the Democrat could not win without a strong performance in the cities. It would certainly be reasonable to declare her campaign a failure if it had fallen short of this goal—and, when Baker won statewide by cutting into her metropolitan margins of victory, many outlets and observers did just that. But this is the wrong way to look at it. As mentioned above, any discussion of Coakley's regional or factional dropoff must be qualified with the 9.5 points better that Baker did overall thanks to his built-in advantages. Accounting for this, Coakley actually did what she needed to do in cities.

For this post, I calculated the average Democratic performance in all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts in presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial elections since 2008 (the era since the awakening of the "Obama electorate"). Based on how Democratic or Republican each city is relative to the rest of the state, we can easily calculate how well Coakley "should" have performed given her 9.5-point drop from average statewide. As it turns out, Baker's urban strategy did not have much of an effect beyond his overall statewide momentum. In fact, Coakley overperformed her expected percentages in most of the state's largest and most diverse municipalities:

In Boston and Worcester, the state's two biggest cities, Baker and Coakley essentially fought to a draw, as Coakley's actual performance was quite close to 9.5 points below the Democratic average. But in liberal strongholds like Cambridge and Somerville, as well as Gateway Cities like majority-Hispanic Lawrence, heavily African American Brockton, and Asian enclaves like Lowell or Quincy, Coakley did not bleed as many votes. In fact, Coakley improved upon her own 2010 performance in 10 of Massachusetts's 11 least white communities.

So despite conventional wisdom, in most cities, Coakley hit the win numbers she would have needed to eke out a narrow victory—if the rest of the state had gone along. By winning the urban vote, Coakley held up her end of the bargain. Who can Massachusetts Democrats point the finger at who didn't?

Damn Yankees

On October 6, 2014, Martha Coakley released a Spanish-language TV ad emphasizing her outreach to the Hispanic community and showing her talking to Hispanic business owners. The same day, Charlie Baker was hobnobbing with businessmen of his own: at a fundraising dinner at Boston's L'Espalier, the fanciest restaurant in the city. From just 40 Boston CEOs, including Hill Holliday's Jack Connors and Suffolk Construction's John Fish, Baker raised $200,000.

If the Coakley campaign's goal was to assert the superiority of a new generation of voters, the Baker campaign's goal was to show that the state establishment still held the leverage to determine an election. And the Massachusetts elite loved Baker, who seemed to be custom-made for them at Brooks Brothers. A successful businessman, generous political donor, and policy-oriented health-care executive, he didn't just fit their profile; he was one of them. Baker's championing of welfare reform and lower taxes was music to their ears, and there was no pro-life or anti-gay rhetoric to scare off these usually Democratic powerbrokers. In 2010, when Baker challenged an incumbent governor, this cautious crowd wasn't quite ready to take the plunge. But in 2014, against a pro-worker attorney general whom many had soured on after 2010, the Massachusetts high society flocked to Baker. It was a flood of support epitomized by Connors and Fish; by the Boston Globe editorial board; by party-line-crossing Democratic officials who endorsed him. But all that symbolic support can't be said to matter unless raw votes followed suit.

Even if the Beacon Hill elite have lost their influence on the urban vote, there is still an identifiable voting bloc over which they retain the ultimate sway: their own. Massachusetts is home to the fourth-largest concentration of so-called "Super Zips"—America's top 5% most educated and richest communities—in the country. In presidential elections, these wealthy Boston suburbs usually vote Democratic, turned off by the national Republican agenda—but they are where Yankee Republicans get elected governor of Massachusetts.

For all the talk about Coakley ceding ground to Baker in cities, he actually won the same well-worn way that Weld, Cellucci, and Romney dispatched their own Democratic opponents: he did extremely well among the state's upper crust. According to WBUR tracking polls throughout September and October, wealthy voters (those making over $150,000 a year) broke sharply for Baker in the race's closing weeks. A full fifth of the projected electorate, they preferred Baker 52% to 35% in the final poll.

This translated to Baker doing even better than we would have expected him to in Super Zips, based on the same historical Democratic averages as above. Search the town-by-town election results for a geographic region where Coakley underperformed by even more than her 9.5-point drop statewide, and you'll quickly notice a cluster of Baker strength in the towns immediately west of Boston. Not coincidentally, these commuter suburbs are the homes of Massachusetts's intellectual, cultural, and economic elite. In the western suburbs with the highest incomes in the state (median household income exceeds $100,000 in almost all of the localities listed below), there is a clear pattern of Coakley underperformance due to Baker's strong connection with these voters:

The list's biggest offenders included the three Ws. Weston, one of the richest towns in the United States and home to Red Sox legends David Ortiz and Jerry Remy, embraced Baker to the tune of 5.3 fewer points for Coakley than expected. Wellesley, location of the eponymous college, shunned Coakley by an extra 4.5 points. Even relatively liberal Wayland, hometown of Jonathan Papelbon as well as your humble blogger, scored 3.8 points below expected for Coakley. Overall, a WBUR analysis found that Coakley ran behind her 2010 self in every normally Democratic community with a median household income over $90,000. (Tangentially, this may also explain why Coakley dropped off more in Boston than in other cities; unlike the Gateway Cities, Boston has a handful of extremely wealthy neighborhoods, such as the Back Bay and West Roxbury, which defected heavily to Baker in 2014.)

Democrats were betting that their new urban base meant this wouldn't matter. But Baker's win showed that, in a head-to-head matchup, rich suburbs could still hold their own. More than that, in fact: as Dave Wasserman observed at FiveThirtyEight months before the election, Super Zips, where they exist, remain a dominant electoral force. Wasserman deconstructed the results of Virginia's own gubernatorial election in 2013 and came to an instructive conclusion: despite Democrats' boasts that higher minority turnout had won Terry McAuliffe the executive mansion there, the real difference-makers were the rich Washington suburbs, which saw McAuliffe as one of them and disdained his Tea Party opponent. In the end, Super Zips decided both Virginia and Massachusetts—for different parties, but for the same type of candidate.

Massachusetts Democrats could have learned from this, had they looked past Virginia's final result and seen that minority voters alone wouldn't have elected McAuliffe. Democrats in either state couldn't win without minorities and city-dwellers, to be sure, but in low-turnout elections like 2014, the elite are still disproportionately decisive. This could change in 2016 and later as the Massachusetts electorate grows even more diverse. But for 2014, Coakley lost the same way Democrats have been losing Massachusetts for decades. For now, in the Bay State's great power struggle between cities and suburbs, the suburbs lived to fight another day.

That was good news for Baker this year, and it will be good news for him in 2018 and for future Republican candidates in Massachusetts. It's undeniable that Baker couldn't have won without his unusually strong support in the hometowns of the privileged, and it was his own strengths as a candidate—not anything Martha Coakley did or didn't do—that he has to thank for it. However—and yes, there's even more to this saga—in my opinion, the Boston suburbs weren't where Baker truly clinched his win. With one win apiece (urban areas for Coakley, suburbs for Baker) in the Boston area, an often-underappreciated part of the state provided the rubber match.

Last Exit to Springfield

There was one last part of Massachusetts where Baker did exceptionally well—where Coakley, had she met expectations there, could have still scraped out a statewide win despite everything else: Western Massachusetts. The denizens of Western Mass will thank you not to forget about them the next time you equate Massachusetts with metro Boston; here, the TV is broadcast from Springfield or Albany, the bluest towns are the smallest towns, and you might even be able to dig up a Yankees fan or two. Given the region's sensitivity to its place in the state, campaigns absolutely must give it the attention it deserves, and both Coakley and Baker spent plenty of time out here in 2014.

Berkshire and Hampshire Counties are strong Democratic strongholds, and Coakley won them with minimal dropoff in 2014. But the real prize in Western Mass is Hampden County, home of Springfield, the state's third-largest city. Greater Springfield may be the one place that Baker's urban strategy did pay off, as he embarrassed Coakley with his performance in this metro area. Even factoring in Coakley's expected 9.5-point drop, the Democrat underperformed in Hampden County's nine biggest municipalities even worse than she did in most of the western Boston suburbs:

I'm not as familiar with Western Mass as I am with the areas around Boston, so I can't quite account for this. However, I'd be remiss if I ignored the potential impact of the hot topic in Springfield from 2014: casino gambling. A city in need of revitalization, Springfield is banking on a proposed downtown casino to create jobs and pump money into the regional economy. However, a ballot measure to ban casinos in Massachusetts was on the 2014 ballot, which could have affected turnout in Hampden County—although not necessarily to any one candidate's benefit. True, Baker had promised to still push the Springfield casino even if gambling was outlawed in the state, but so did Coakley. Other explanations for the discrepancy could be that Baker just had a particularly strong field effort around Springfield, or perhaps his television-advertising advantage was more pronounced here.

Regardless, something inspired Springfield and all of its major suburbs to tack even more Republican than the state as a whole this year. Although I was able to find ready explanations for all the variations from average in the rest of the state, this one truly surprised me. Yet it is perhaps the most notable variation, in terms of votes it was worth. For all the Boston-centric chatter about Eastern Massachusetts cities and the Boston suburbs dueling to pick the next governor, there's some poetic justice to the fact that Western Massachusetts was probably the clincher in 2014.


Something Martha Coakley's detractors ignore is how close she came to becoming Massachusetts's next governor. Eight of the final nine polls of the race spelled out, unambiguously, how Baker was the clear favorite: leads of six, seven, even nine points. Unlike 2010, when complaints of a Coakley "collapse" were better founded, the Democrat actually did better than expected: from a final polling average that showed Baker up by almost four points, she cut his eventual winning margin to less than two. That's not something an incompetent campaign does.

Sure, Coakley could've done better in cities—but she did well enough. Coakley could've done better around Springfield—but we don't know what in the world went wrong there. And... well, no, she probably couldn't have done better in Super Zips. Baker simply had too much of a built-in advantage. She couldn't stop donors from giving huge checks to Baker. She couldn't prevent the RGA from making its huge ad buys. She couldn't take away the free will of Democratic VIPs to throw their support to Baker. None of these things were her fault.

Instead, the "blame" for a Coakley loss—if you even want to frame it that way—probably lies with the people she needed in her corner turning their backs on her. One of Coakley's biggest problems this year was raising money, but many of Democrats' usual high rollers had decided instead to give their money to Baker. To many Beacon Hill lobbyists and Boston businessmen, Coakley was already damaged goods. The same was true of the DC establishment, whose super PACs did not give Coakley nearly as much air cover as the RGA gave Baker. Coakley will always be viewed inside the Beltway as the person who did what Washington considers impossible: lose in Massachusetts as a Democrat. And finally, there was a subset of Massachusetts voters who never came to fully trust Coakley after 2010: for lack of a better categorization, Steve Grossman primary voters. The Democrats who backed Coakley's main rival in the gubernatorial primary mostly did so not because they loved Grossman, but because their motto was "anybody but Coakley." It's a baffling motto for any Democrat to have, given Coakley's sterling record and liberal credentials; it can only be derived from disgust at the person who once thought Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan. That and other missteps in late 2009 and early 2010 were bad, but they are also ancient history. In 2014, the only misstep you could say Coakley made was not earning enough forgiveness, not eliciting enough sympathy, not inspiring enough support.

Maybe you could say that about any candidate. In fact, they do. It's the default for most campaign autopsies. But Martha Coakley doesn't get that benefit of the doubt, solely because of her history. Hopefully, the data, and the anecdotes, can exonerate her this time. No, Martha Coakley didn't lose because she's such a terrible candidate. She lost because she never stopped paying for five-year-old mistakes.


  1. "Massachusetts Democrats could have learned from this, had they looked past Virginia's final result and seen that minority voters alone wouldn't have elected McAuliffe."

    I.e. the Coakley campaign? Baker's "urban strategy" was a ruse to scare Democrats and trick the Coakley campaign into diverting more resources to the cities instead of spending them on swing voters, and it worked. Baker ran the traditional MA Republican winner's campaign, while Coakley played defense against a strategy he wasn't really trying. Coakley absolutely deserves the blame for that loss.

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