Martha Coakley's Problems With The Base

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is the front-runner in the Democratic gubernatorial race, and maintains a lead in hypothetical general election matchups. She's seen here in a June file photo. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is the front-runner in the Democratic gubernatorial race, and maintains a lead in hypothetical general election matchups. She's seen here in a June file photo. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Attorney General Martha Coakley is locked in a dead heat for governor with Republican Charlie Baker because she’s struggling to win over the two demographic groups she needs most. Partisan Democrats and women voters formed the backbone of the recent Democratic victories in Massachusetts. But three weeks before Election Day, Coakley is still struggling to close the sale with the state’s Democratic base.

Democrats have established a winning formula in recent contests: Roll up big margins with women voters, turn out the party faithful and capture just enough independent voters to allow Democrats’ built-in numerical advantage to overwhelm Republicans. This is the formula that carried Gov. Deval Patrick past Charlie Baker in 2010, and it lifted Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey into the U.S. Senate. Coakley is struggling to emulate the formula right now.

Unenrolled voters make up more than half the Massachusetts electorate, and they’re the biggest prize in any statewide election. However, because Massachusetts Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-one, Democrats don’t have to win a majority of unenrolled voters to win statewide; they just have to keep things relatively close. When Patrick beat Baker for governor in 2010, he lost the independent vote by 14 points. Warren won her 2012 Senate contest against Scott Brown by 8 points, despite trailing Brown among unenrolled voters by 14 points. Both Patrick and Warren could afford to trail their Republican opponents by decent margins, because they enjoyed strong showings among the state’s numerous party-line Democrats.

Six weeks of WBUR tracking polls in the race for governor show Coakley struggling to rally the Democratic base to her side. The most recent WBUR poll showed Coakley garnering support from just 62 percent of Democrats (not including leaners). Coakley’s standing among registered Democrats has barely moved since the end of August, when she was polling at 63 percent among Democrats in a matchup against Baker.

It’s not that Baker has made significant inroads among Democrats: In August, he was winning 11 percent of the Democratic vote, and in last week’s poll, he was capturing 15 percent. (Baker took 14 percent of the Democratic vote against Patrick in 2010.) But since the end of the summer, one-fifth of Democratic voters have been sitting on the fence, undecided between Coakley and Baker. The longer they stay away from home, the tougher Coakley’s path to victory gets.

Democratic voters have been unusually cool to their party’s nominee this year. At this point in the Warren-Brown Senate race, a WBUR poll had Warren up among Democrats, 72 to 21, with just 7 percent of Democrats undecided. A Suffolk University survey in late September 2012 showed Warren capturing 81 percent of the Democratic vote, with 6 percent undecided. Compared to those two data points, Coakley’s inability to consolidate the Democratic vote looms large. Her current deficit among independents is in line with the figures Patrick and Warren posted against Baker and Brown. But Coakley can’t afford to concede scores of unenrolled voters to Baker if she can’t make up the difference with a lopsided victory among Democrats.

There’s a similar dynamic at work in the race’s gender split. Patrick, Warren and Markey all won by securing lopsided margins among women voters. The women’s vote should be a point of strength for Coakley, who hopes to become the first female to be elected governor in Massachusetts. But the governor’s race has tightened over the last month because Coakley’s standing with women voters has slipped.

Over the past six weeks, the share of women voters in the weekly WBUR poll who say they hold a favorable view of Coakley has fallen, from 53 percent to 40 percent; over the same period, the share of women voters who hold an unfavorable view of Coakley has spiked, from 22 percent to 36 percent. Coakley and Baker now enjoy equal favorability ratings among women, but Baker’s unfavorable numbers haven’t spiked, like Coakley’s have.

Men tend to skew Republican in statewide races, and Baker has held a relatively stable, mid-single-digit edge over Coakley among men since the end of August. But Coakley’s share of the women’s vote has eroded in recent weeks. She walked into the general election matchup with a 20-point lead over Baker among women; in last week’s tracking poll, that edge fell to 9 points. At 9 points, Coakley’s lead among women is less than half what Patrick, Warren and Markey all achieved. And it appears headed in the wrong direction.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine and a contributor to WBUR’s Poll Vault. 

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