By Dan Sally & Nathan Lockwood
With an approval rating of just under 70%, Charlie Baker is one of America’s most popular governors. During his eight years in office, Baker has consistently polled at the top of the charts. More surprising, he’s a Republican who’s managed to win two elections in Massachusetts where Democrats maintain a 3 to 1 advantage over Republicans. Even more surprising than that, Baker won’t be seeking reelection in 2022.
How can this possibly be?
The answer can be found in Charlie Baker’s odyssey through Massachusetts politics. The story begins with a tough and persistent fight through our antiquated pick-one voting system to reach the Governor’s mansion. It features an impressive two-term tenure. And where the story lands for now is a major setback from the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis:
1.) Massachusetts restrictive ballot access and party primary system that chews up would-be nominees, alongside
2.) The swirling distortions of our pick-one, plurality general elections, that transform additional candidates or parties from “healthy competition and fresh choices” into “spoilers”.
Let’s trace Baker’s journey.
2010 – Baker burnt by vote splitting in the general
In 2010, Massachusetts Republicans had momentum on their side. Scott Brown had become the first member of their party to be elected to the US Senate in 30 years. National sentiment had turned against the Democratic Party with the economy still reeling from the financial crisis and the increasingly contentious passage of the Affordable Care Act.
The question at the time wasn’t which candidate could best secure support from their own party, but who could win over enough disenchanted moderates to take office.
In this respect, Baker was the perfect candidate. He was moderate enough for more conservative Democrats and independents, and Republican enough to have the support of his own party. He also polled well against incumbent Deval Patrick, whose numbers were dragged down by the national political climate.
The entrance of former Democratic State Treasurer, Tim Cahill, as an independent in the race presented a complication. Like Baker, Cahill was running as a moderate candidate who could theoretically peel away Democratic voters from Patrick. He also chose Republican State Representative Jim Loscocco as his running mate, which threatened to split the Republican vote.
Cahill never took the lead in the polls, yet his support was enough to cloud and possibly alter the outcome of the election, with Patrick winning with 48.4% of the vote, Baker coming in second at 42%, and Cahill taking up the remaining 8% (with Green-Rainbow Party’s Jill Stein taking another 1.4% sliver).
Cahill’s fiscally conservative platform had a great deal of overlap with Baker’s, requiring the Baker campaign to divert precious campaign efforts to differentiating from and attacking Cahill instead of focusing fully on Patrick. This similarity may have been by design: Loscocco quit Cahill’s ticket accusing their team of coordinating efforts against Baker with the Patrick campaign. This fueled speculation that Cahill was a “straw candidate”, planted in the race only to weaken Baker all along. While there’s no way to be certain who would have benefited from Cahill’s votes had he not run and we’ll never know for sure who a majority of Massachusetts voters preferred in that race, it’s clear that our election system’s vulnerability to “spoilers” hampered Baker significantly in his first run for governor .
2014 – Beating the odds
Baker faced another big field in 2014 with independent candidates claiming 5% of the vote total, however, this time, he prevailed over Martha Coakley by 48.4% to 46.5%. Again, it is impossible to say for sure who would have won in a head-to-head matchup, though it is worth noting that all the independent candidates were more fiscally conservative than Coakley, one much more so, and one was a staunch religious conservative.
2018 – Standing tall during the Blue Wave
The 2014 win gave Baker a chance to show Massachusetts what he was made of, and in the 2018 general election voters overwhelmingly showed their approval of his tenure. Baker was unapologetically outspoken against the excesses of the Trump administration, in step with most of the state. In a warning of things to come, the incredibly popular Baker, while he received 70% of his party’s nomination vote at the state convention, saw 28% go to ultra-conservative, pro-Trump pastor Scott Lively – whose extreme anti-gay activism in Uganda led to a court stating that he had almost certainly violated international law. Disturbingly for many Massachusetts residents, this lead narrowed further in the GOP primary, with Lively’s vote share expanding to 36% in defeat.
Despite this push-back within the GOP, Baker’s popularity with the general electorate was on full display: bucking a “Blue Wave” that brought Democrats congressional victories across the country, and which delivered liberal Elizabeth Warren a crushing victory, 60% vs. 40% over both Trump-Republican Geoff Diehl and “unconventional” former Republican Shiva Ayyadurai, Baker, in a congenial campaign, obliterated Democrat Jay Gonzalez 67% to 33%.
2022 – The turkeys come home to roost
While Baker is highly popular among Massachusetts voters at large, his criticism of Donald Trump and refusal to vote for him in 2016 and 2020 has made him largely unpopular with his own party – a group that comprises under 10% of registered voters in the state. Polling last year showed Baker 20 points behind his most likely opponent, former State Representative Geoff Diehl, in a hypothetical primary matchup. Baker had to face the likelihood he could not win his own party’s primary, despite his massive popularity with voters overall.
Since then, Diehl has gone on to cinch the state Republican party endorsement as well as the blessing of Donald Trump. His Democratic opponent Maura Healey currently holds a 30-point lead in the election, roughly in line with the margin of victory Elizabeth Warren held over Diehl in their 2018 Senate matchup.
Baker has dismissed the idea of running as an independent, despite the fact polling last year showed he could win in a three-way matchup against Diehl and Healey. It’s also conceivable that were he to run he and Healey could split votes allowing Diehl to win with a 35% base – a significant risk that could see a Trump ally gloating in liberal Massachusetts’ highest office. When the party primaries fail to deliver candidates who appeal to a majority of the general electorate, our plurality system of elections makes it difficult for independent candidates, even really strong ones, to offer a third option, as they often risk serving as spoilers handing the election to the less popular of the two major parties.
2020 – “Yes on 2”, Baker’s albatross
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a simple improvement to the way we vote that gives more choice and power to voters. The way it works is instead of just picking one candidate when you vote, you can rank the candidates in the order you like them: your favorite is your first choice, next preference your second choice, etc.. You can always support your favorite without worrying about wasting your vote — if your #1 doesn’t have the support needed to win, your vote counts for your #2, and so on. The candidate that demonstrates the broad support of a majority wins.
RCV eliminates the “spoiler” problem, which means that more than just two candidates or parties can compete without distorting election outcomes. For example, if two flavors of conservative run, their supporters can rank one first and the other second. If one of these loses, the remaining stronger candidate will likely pick up many votes from the second choices on ballots supporting the similar losing candidate — they are no worse off than if that similar candidate had not run in the first place. No danger of “splitting the vote” and no one demonized as a “spoiler”.
If Massachusetts had passed “Yes on 2” in 2020 to adopt Maine-style ranked choice voting for primaries and general elections starting in 2022, Baker could have formed and run under the banner of a new mainstream Center-Right party, or competed under his own strong personal brand as an independent.
Alternatively, with reforms such as final-four voting, as is used in Alaska, Baker could have run as one of several Republican candidates in an open primary and gone on to compete against both Healey and Diehl in a general election matchup determined by ranked-choice voting. And the race would have been even more interesting, with general election voters able to hear in the debates a wider range of voices – likely including a fourth addition of either Massachusetts first African American woman to run for statewide office, Harvard Professor Danielle Allen, or State Senator Sonya Chang Díaz – both compelling, popular, and offering somewhat more liberal options to Maura Healey.
Whether in the mold of Maine or Alaska, with RCV, who wins is less important than how. Our current plurality primary process tends to deliver candidates who, in order to win, pledge to reflect and serve the views of a relatively small but powerful faction of their party rather than those of the majority of voters. Then the much larger group of general election voters does not get many real options — they are compelled to choose the candidate they dislike the least, as opposed to the one they support the most. Electing politicians who aren’t beholden to the public broadly is how we end up with state and federal governments that consistently fail to deliver what the public wants.
The Massachusetts 2020 “Yes on 2” RCV ballot initiative was just the good fortune Baker needed to ensure his viability in 2022. So it is somewhat inexplicable why just days before the referendum Baker chose to shoot this albatross down in an October 27th, 2020 press conference, where he opposed the measure on poorly substantiated grounds of cost and complexity. It is quite possible that with Baker’s support, the measure which lost by only 5%, would have passed – and Baker could be running for governor today and sailing to victory in November in a ranked choice voting election.
The irony gets deeper – Baker’s former boss who he describes as his “political mentor”, Bill Weld, was a strong supporter and honorary co-chair for the RCV ballot campaign, stating “Barriers for new competition will be reduced for candidates outside of both major parties.” The person who had the most to gain by Baker’s getting taken out of the picture, Maura Healey, strongly endorsed the RCV ballot question and criticized Baker’s opposition.
The Future – Baker and RCV rise again?
Charlie Baker is too talented a politician and leader to go down like this, and it will be interesting to see his next act, possibly on the federal stage. “I’m not going to go away quietly, and I’m certainly not. . . . I’m not going to retire,” he said at an event in June. In an age of polarization, Baker’s legacy of moderation, civil communication, and bi-partisan cooperation have a lot to offer.
While Baker’s governorship is ending somewhat tragically, the stakes of that loss pale in comparison to the onslaught of a very vocal and disgruntled minority that are seeking to exploit weaknesses in our institutions and dismantle key pillars of our democracy and freedoms. Ranked choice voting is a key part of a package of reforms that can increase public influence and trust in government and protect democratic institutions from extremists seeking to seize and destroy them.
Ranked choice voting is a classic Charlie Baker-style “smart policy” – low-cost, non-partisan, proven to work, giving more freedom at the ballot box for voters, and more freedom for candidates to run. RCV fosters healthy competition. As Baker re-launches his political career to serve the best interests of the majority of Massachusetts or American voters, he could very consistently re-align himself as a strong proponent of the movement to strengthen America with ranked choice voting… and his support will be welcomed with open arms.
Dan Sally worked with digital marketing software firm, HubSpot, advising companies on how to grow their business via the web. Dan brings his passion for electoral reform, his knowledge of digital marketing to help Rank the Vote reach a wider audience online. Dan spent 8 years pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, appearing on Comedy Central and as a finalist in the Boston Comedy Festival.
Nathan Lockwood is Executive Director of Rank the Vote. He played a leading role in founding and growing Voter Choice Massachusetts both as the regional lead for Central Massachusetts and through various statewide roles. He also served on the board of directors of the Voter Choice Education Fund.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.