Sunday, May 28, 2017

Massachusetts Governor's Race 2018 - An Early Look

It's 18 months in the future, but this is a good opportunity to time travel and assess the 2018 Massachusetts Gubernatorial election. The battle lines are forming and Governor Baker, although very popular at this time, is no shoe-in for reelection.

Charlie Baker won a very close contest (by just over one percentage point) against Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2014. However, his moderate and managerial approach has won the Republican accolades from many Independents and grudging respect from his opponents. He has parlayed this into favorably ratings that most elected officials can only hope for. An April 2017 Morning Consult poll has Baker's overall favorability at a stratospheric 75%. Other recent polls have showed him at 70%. This should make him nearly untouchable even this far out from an election. However, Baker is a Republican in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. This coupled with the deep animosity toward President Trump's (his approval in Massachusetts is currently under 30%) makes 2018 a race where Baker has an advantage, but also vulnerability if things go south.

To negate this, Baker has very publicly separated himself from the president, both before and after his election. Baker's challenge will be maintaining that distance while maintaining his own brand of Yankee Republicanism. His socially liberal stances have disarmed some of the activist community, but his fiscal moderation is under attack from the political left who desire a more active state government role and progressive tax structure.

The Democrats will use Trump's unpopularity to tie Bake to the administration in Washington whenever possible. Additionally, they will use politically popular initiatives such as the proposed millionaire's tax (which will be on the ballot and is very likely to pass in 2018) and raising the state's minimum wage to motivate the progressive wing of the party to turn out.

As of now, Baker has three declared opponents:

  • Jay Gonzalez, former State Secretary of Administration and Finance
  • Bob Massie, nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 1994 and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012
  • Setti Warren, Mayor of Newton and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012

All three are from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. I expect other people to get into the race, especially if the state's economy turns negative. As of now, Baker's popularity and fundraising prowess are keeping other prominent Democrats out of the race, although I suspect Attorney General Maura Healey may rethink her decision not to run if Baker appears vulnerable. Of the three declared candidates, I see Warren as having the best chance of being nominated as he is young, polished, and will do well within the minority community and suburban liberals.

Baker's strategy will be to use his "aw shucks" personality, active managerial approach, and not to pick any fights on social issues although the right wing of his base is deeply suspicious of him for being to moderate and has been given the dreaded RINO (Republican in Name Only) moniker by the more vocal folks on the right. He will face populist pressure on healthcare and taxes and will need to walk a tightrope on these issues.

To win re-election, Baker needs several things to coalesce:

  1. Keep the lion share of Independents, a group he overwhelmingly won in 2014.
  2. Stay competitive in traditionally Democratic blue collar communities, many of which he won by narrow margins. He will need to win about 25% of registered Democrats.
  3. Keep the Democratic victories in the cities and wealthy suburbs tight enough not to be overwhelmed on election night.
  4. Keep the GOP right wing from fielding a primary opponent which will create party division and drain resources. He needs to win 90% plus of registered Republicans.
  5. Most importantly, manage the state's economy (attract business, fix issues with healthcare, the MBTA, DHHS, etc.) to the extent that he can and avoid a fiscal crisis that will undermine his managerial assets.
  6. Stay on cool (if not cold) relations with President Trump. If the president visits the state, Baker would be well advised not to be photographed with Trump - this will be used in attack ads from the Democrats.
Advice for the Democrats:
  1. Tie Baker to President Trump at every opportunity. Rinse and repeat.
  2. Actuate the minority community to vote in greater numbers. These are reliably Democratic voters, but they turn out at relatively low rates.
  3. Play the populist game. Higher taxes on the wealthy and more state spending and services. However, this needs to be presented in a way that can't be portrayed as just tax and spend policies. Outline these proposals in a fiscally responsible way and couch them as investments and tax fairness.
  4. Tie Baker to Trump, did I say that yet?

Massachusetts is one of the most liberal states in the union, but has a tradition of not always giving complete control to one political party. Baker has been wise to promote himself as a check on the Democratic legislature whist working with the Democratic leadership at the same time on key issues. In an odd way, Massachusetts politics are relatively non-polarized when compared to the other areas of the nation. Voters seem to appreciate the parties minimizing their squabbling and getting things accomplished without excessive rancor and gridlock.

As today, I would give Baker about a 60% chance of retaining his seat in 2018, but as Larry Sabato says; He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass.

Onwards!

The Prof

Friday, January 13, 2017

Electoral College - Like It or Lump It

In the United States, we have the peculiar and most unique institution known as the Electoral College which sole function is to elect the president. In fact, the actual presidential election is when the Electors meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for president and vice president. For the 2016 election this occurred on December 19, 2016.

Electoral College Results in 2016:

Trump 306 (304 after vote of Electors)
Clinton 232 (227 after vote of Electors)
Others 7 (votes cast by faithless Electors)

Some background:

Electors are allocated via a very simple formula:

EV (electoral vote) per state = the number of congressional reps in that state plus the two senators. So Massachusetts has 9 representatives yielding a total of 11 EVs. Vermont with 1 representative has 3 EVs. Florida with 27 congressmen has 29 EVs.

A presidential candidate needs to win a simple majority of the 538 total EVs available. The magic number is 270 or more to win.

Thoughts of the Founders:

Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #68 "A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated tasks"

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution states:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 4 of the Constitution states:

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing [sic] the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

Since the election of 1824, most states have appointed their electors on a winner-take-all basis, based on the statewide popular vote on Election Day. Maine and Nebraska are the only two current exceptions, as both states use the congressional district method. 

Love it or hate it this is the constitutionally enshrined system of electing the US president. Let's look at the pros and cons of this system as its supporters and detractors would frame them.

Pros:

  • The EC ensures that the states have at least some say in the selection of president. States can allocated EVs by winner-takes-all as 48 currently do; winner by congressional district (the Maine and Nebraska model) or can allocate them by other means such as popular vote percentage if they so choose. Needless to say, the federal nature of the Constitution is preserved by the EC.
  • The EC ensures that candidates must campaign and appeal to multiple interests and geographies. If the election was strictly popular vote, states with large populations and major urban centers would receive the lion's share of candidate attention. Smaller states and rural areas would receive limited or no attention to their issues. In 2016 with Hillary Clinton winning by nearly three million votes nationwide, California proved her with a cushion of over 4 million votes. In fact, LA County alone contributed more than 1.8 million additional votes to Clinton over Trump. Why would a candidate want to campaign in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, or Maine (all swing states in  2016) with so few votes to be harvested from these areas? Focusing on turnout in a small number vote-rich urban counties would reduce the "hinterlands" to an afterthought. In essence, the EC forces candidates to run truly national elections instead of competing for urban votes only.
  • Much less chance of recounts with the existing system - even with a close election. The EC usually (with 2016 being a glaring exception) amplifies the victory of the popular vote winner and establishes a clear winner on election night thus forestalling the need for recounts, challenges, and the inevitable lawyering-up post-election. Imagine a scenario of the 2000 recount debacle in Florida being played out for weeks or months all over the nation...
Cons:
  • 2016! The EC is simply an undemocratic mechanism. Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 48% to 46% (nearly 3 million votes over Mr. Trump) and still "lost" the election. No other nation in the world (including nations with a federal framework) have an equivalent to the EC.
  • While it may have made sense in 1787, times change. The original theory was to have an august body of wise men selected by elites in the state legislature who would debate and select the man with the best temperament, education, and abilities to discharge the office of the Presidency. This made some sense with an uninformed and ill-educated population (by the by only white males had suffrage at this time), but with an educated population citizens can make informed decisions.
  • Under the current system a Republican voter in Massachusetts or a Democratic voter in Utah has little incentive to vote in a presidential election as there is little doubt as to which party will win those states. However, under a popular vote, citizens nationwide would have incentive to vote and help their candidates, even citizens residing in states that are not competitive. How many Republicans in California and Democrats in Kentucky stayed home due the the EC? 
  • Piggybacking on the previous point, candidates focus most of their campaign in the 15 or so swing states every four years thus ignoring a major portion of the nation at least in terms of active campaigning.
  • As states have different standards regarding voter registration and eligibility (felons voting rights vary from state to state) arguably the voting franchise is variable. Having a national election with on standard would remove any potential disenfranchisement.
  • Seven electors in 2016 were faithless electors thus potentially giving just a few individuals the ability to overturn an election.
So what does the Prof think? I believe that that nation ought to retain the EC, but establish modifications to address some of the very legitimate concerns outlined above.
  1. Eliminate the role of individuals being voting electors and make it a mathematical construct. This removes the unlikely, but real possibility that faithless electors could overturn an election result. The EC would just be a numerical count based on the electoral vote tally as allocated by the states.
  2. Encourage some mechanism to avoid wasted votes in the non-swing states - be it using the aforementioned district plan nationwide (although that is fraught with potential issues as well, i.e. numerous recounts in closely contested districts) or possibly an allocation of EV per state by the candidate's vote percentage in a given state. For example, if a candidate receives a floor of at least 40% of the vote in a state, they would get at least some proportion of EVs from that state, even if they lose the state overall.
I think it is important to keep the federal character of electing a president while acknowledging and correcting some of the undemocratic elements of it. 

Remember, changing or eliminating the EC would require a constitutional amendment which would need to be passed by at least 38 states. This is very unlikely to occur as small states benefit disproportionately from the EC and would be quite loathe to give away the limited sway over presidential elections that they currently enjoy under the EC. Thus much of the above argument is purely academic...
*By the way, if the entire nation had used the District Plan for allocating Electors in 2016, the results would be similar. 

Trump 290
Clinton 248

Onwards!


The Prof