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Commentary: Independent Voters — Trick or Treat

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As we enter the final week of the campaign for governor, the outcome will be determined by independent voters. Pollster Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group conducts weekly tracking surveys for WBUR.  In his most recent poll, Democrats made up 33 percent of the sample, Republicans 12 percent and independents a whopping 55 percent of those polled. That’s about the same as statewide voter registration.

Baker’s big independent advantage. Democrat Martha Coakley, as you’d expect, is winning Democratic voters 66 percent-18 percent; Charlie Baker unsurprisingly leads with GOP voters 76 percent - 13 percent. However, among independents, Baker leads Coakley 52-32. (While it can be tricky to compare two different polls, The Boston Globe poll showed Baker winning independents 57-20.)

Why Democrats usually win. A 3-1 advantage over the GOP in registration explains why so many Democrats win so many offices in Massachusetts. As a rule of thumb, in order for a Democrat to win statewide, he or she must hold the Republican opponent’s independent margin to no more than 20 points.  Right now that’s not happening.

More troubling news for Coakley is that independent voters aren’t really into her. Her favorable rating is 41 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable. Meanwhile, Baker is viewed favorably by 58 percent and unfavorably by just 18 percent of independent voters — a huge 3-1 ratio.

Where to reach them. Democrats can be found in union halls and college campuses; Republicans in country clubs and boardrooms. Suffolk County, which includes Boston, is heavily Democratic, with more than 53 percent voters registered Democrats. Barnstable County has the biggest concentration of Republicans, who make up nearly 16 percent of registered voters.

No Independentville. But there’s no one place to find independent voters. They’re here, there and everywhere. They’re hard to reach in large part because they don’t follow politics closely. Imagine being a baseball fan but not having a favorite team.

Independents prefer GOP. Surprisingly, independent voters in Massachusetts tilt to the GOP. But the overriding strength of Democratic Party registration plus the party’s sophisticated voter ID and get-out-the vote operation gives its candidates a small but significant advantage. It might be worth 2 or 3 extra points on Election Day.

Not about issues or ideology. It’s a popularity contest like class president in high school. Both candidates are well-known but Coakley’s a 50-50 proposition while Baker favorability is nearly twice his unfavorability.

Running for AG not governor. Coakley talks more about her record as attorney general than what she’ll do as governor, casting her as a figure of the status quo. All the Big Foot national Democrats coming to town only make her look even more like a partisan Democrat.

Coakley’s lack of a defining critique of Deval Patrick may be holding back independents. Of course, it’s possible that her advisers are so close to the governor they can’t imagine her criticizing him.  erhaps her campaign is so dependent on the Democrats’ statewide field operation, that they fear a backlash among the worker bees if Coakley were to knock the incumbent governor.

“I vote the person, not the party.” If that’s true, and independents say it all the time, then Coakley’s in trouble. Her lack of likeability isn’t new. After she lost to Scott Brown in the 2010 special Senate election, a survey conducted for the AFL-CIO showed “the electorate found Brown quite likeable and did not care much for Coakley at all.” Her 2014 campaign showed little ability to use her TV ads to make her likeable.

To paraphrase Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," “She’s liked, but she's not well liked.”

My 2 cents. No one seems to be able to understand how Baker shot out to a 9-point lead in the Globe’s latest poll. The news is all Ebola all the time. Throw in ISIS beheadings and a nut job climbing a fence and getting into the White House, and people are scared. Result: Advantage, non-incumbent Baker.

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.

Dan Payne Twitter Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.

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