Baker’s precarious popularity

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If Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker had to defend his incumbency in the cataclysmic election last week he likely would have lost. Baker can only hope that the political landscape for his reelection in 2018 is like 2014, not 2016, to ensure victory. In Massachusetts, being moderate and popular can be politically precarious.

In a post-election post-mortem, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr concluded that Baker was among the night’s biggest “losers.”  Carr, an ardent Trump supporter, noted that Baker supported the defeated Question 2 ballot measure (which sought expansion of Charter Schools) and opposed the successful Question 4 (which sought legalization of recreational marijuana). Baker never supported President-elect Trump.

Politics makes strange bedfellows.  Today, the moderate Baker, who says he did not vote for anyone for president, finds himself aligned with conservative Glenn Beck.  The radio host vehemently opposed both Trump and Hillary Clinton during the campaign and proclaimed, at one point, “[t]here’s no good outcome for me in any of this.”

Defeated New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte wavered throughout the campaign in her support/no support of Trump. She lost her reelection bid by .1 percent in a state that barely went for Clinton. It is unclear whether Ayotte have won had she, like Baker, consistently disassociated herself from Trump.

Baker must also be keenly aware that the last widely popular and moderate Republican politician to run for statewide reelection was Senator Scott Brown; he lost decisively in 2012 to Elizabeth Warren but supported Trump in 2016. It remains to be seen if Baker’s political instincts can carry him to victory in two years given what occurred last week.

In governing style and substance Baker is sensibly moderate in progressive Massachusetts. He is popular too. Today, he enjoys a 70 percent approval rating (down from 72 percent this past May) and is among the most popular governors in America. For a Republican governor in which the state legislature is controlled 80 percent by Democrats and enrolled Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one, this is an extraordinary achievement. But Baker knows well that popularity — which is based on polling — is fleeting and temporal.

This past election cycle showed that flawed polling was largely unable to accurately measure outcomes and the predictive modelling used by pollsters was defective. Newfangled social media is now competing with traditional polling as a means to better gauge voter sentiment. This should concern Baker’s team.

Upon Obama’s inaugural, nearly eight years ago, there were only 5 million Twitter accounts. President-elect Trump alone has 15 million followers on Twitter today. Forbes reports that just on election day: “there were 115.3 million people on Facebook worldwide that generated 716.3 million likes, posts, comments and shares related to the election. There were 643 million views of election-related videos. And, over 10 million people in the U.S. shared on Facebook that they’d voted.” Critically, notes, the social media platform “has become a hub for its 1.79 billion monthly active users to share their political viewpoints with their friends…” They might be sharing more with friends than pollsters.

But Massachusetts is a strange place politically.

In the wake of the election, state GOP Chair Kirsten Hughes proclaimed that, with great enthusiasm, “Our party is on the rise in Massachusetts” Really? Republicans picked up just one seat in the House of Representatives bringing its caucus to only 35 members out of 160 members. The entire Democratic U.S. House delegation in the Commonwealth won reelection. Otherwise, nothing changed for Republicans or Democrats here. Yet Trump’s election prompted Boston Public Schools to create what the called “safe spaces” for students to “cope” with the results.

Even with its super-majorities here, local Democrats must feel lonely in the national wilderness. The country is decidedly Republican: only 16 of 50 governors are Democrats; only 6 states have a Democrat control trifecta (governorship and majorities in the respective House and respective Senate), Republicans own the trifecta in 24 states; 68 out of 99 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans; only two states (Massachusetts and Maryland) have a Democratic veto-proof legislature with a Republican governor; and, stunningly, one-third of the entire U.S. House Democratic caucus is comprised by members of just three states — Massachusetts, New York and California.

What will 2018 look like in Massachusetts?

It depends on Trump’s ability to effect reform, not his popularity. But it does depend on Baker’s popularity (how will his anti-Trump stance be remembered?). In a post-election statement Baker said, “it is my hope that President-elect Donald Trump works quickly to unite our country after a divisive election.” It will be an off-year election and that usually portends the party in power will lose seats. And Republicans will be hard pressed to maintain the sweeping gains made in 2010 and 2014, and its dominance in 2016.

Clinton won Massachusetts 60.8 percent (1,964,768 million) to his 33.5 percent (1,083,069 million) with the remaining 5.7 percent split between Gary Johnson and Jill Sein. But Trump easily won the Massachusetts Republican primary, meaning that Baker may have to contend with a Republican base that is angry with him for not standing by the nominee. Statewide in 2018 Baker must bind together a rickety Republican coalition as well as artfully convince and convert enough Democrats to vote for him. Senator Warren will be seeking reelection (potentially against political novice Curt Schilling) and Trump will be at midterm. 

Watching this unfold will likely be the political story in Massachusetts over the next two years.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist.