BUT PHIL JOHNSTON, who granted an extensive interview to Kahan, doesn’t see it that way. While the State Democratic Party chair and architect of this weekend’s Democratic convention doesn’t disagree head-on with her findings, he has a different take on the same data. Johnston, who ran unsuccessfully for the 10th Congressional District seat in 1996, contends that independents in Massachusetts usually lean consistently toward one party or the other. "This is still generally a Democratic state," he says. "Most of those independents were formerly Democrats."
Johnston points to his own home region, the South Shore, to support his argument. In towns such Marshfield and Scituate, for example, independents lean Democratic 55 to 45 percent. Besides, Johnston suggests, the fact that so many state voters — 59 percent — cast ballots in favor of Al Gore in the 2000 election reinforces the notion that Massachusetts is still a heavily Democratic state. (He downplays the fact that John McCain, a Republican, took almost as many votes in the state presidential primary in 2000 as Gore, noting: "Mitt Romney is no John McCain.")
Further, Johnston contends that a Democrat will be governor in 2002 if the nominee achieves what hasn’t been done since before 1990, the year in which Weld defeated Silber: the construction of a strong, united Democratic base. In the 1990 election, Weld won by peeling off progressive voters who were scared off by the Democratic but socially conservative and sometimes inflammatory Silber. In 1994, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Roosevelt couldn’t recapture the allegiance of core Democrats, many of whom remained enthralled by Weld. And in 1998, Cellucci drew the support of white Catholic ethnic voters — largely Italians — as well as significant labor support and the endorsements of Democratic politicians, more than two dozen of whom organized under the banner "Democrats for Cellucci," including former Worcester state senator William McManus and former New Bedford state senator Biff McClean. It also didn’t hurt that Democratic powerhouses like House Speaker Tom Finneran and Boston mayor Tom Menino didn’t support Harshbarger enthusiastically and rarely protested when they were portrayed as preferring Cellucci. Finneran himself referred to Harshbarger as a member of the "loony left."
Those factors were far more influential on the final outcome, Johnston maintains, than the fact that Cellucci won the independent vote on the issue of the economy. "Who do we lose to Romney?" asks the State Democratic Party chair. "In some ways, you could make the argument that Swift was more threatening because she was a woman."
A winning strategy for the Democratic nominee, he says, would stress those issues, such as health care and abortion rights (where polls suggest women, in particular, lean heavily Democratic), in which there are sharp distinctions between the parties — at least in this year’s gubernatorial race. Take the issue of abortion. Every Democratic gubernatorial candidate can be described as pro-choice. Although Romney now describes himself as a "pro-choice" candidate, he has also made a written declaration that he "did not want to be labeled pro-choice."
Beyond the issues, the Democrats will represent the Republican candidate as a man who is not at home in the Commonwealth. "He’s been out of the state for a long time. He’s been out of politics for a long time," says Johnston. "He hasn’t been a major philanthropist, and he has not been involved in [local] cultural affairs." This critique of Romney, the Democratic Party chair contends, will help unify the party and prevent prominent Democrats from slipping away to support the Republican (as happened in 1998). "We haven’t had a candidate able to unify the party," he says. And the strategy Johnston proposes is clear: the path to victory should center on playing to Democratic strengths, not, as Kahan’s conclusions suggest, wooing independents.
ALL THAT SAID, Kahan doesn’t write off the Democratic Party altogether. Quite the opposite, in fact. She contends that her suburban managerial professionals will gravitate toward the Democrats this year, describing the current Democratic gubernatorial candidates as "really strong candidates ... who could appeal to this group of voters." Who is the strongest? Kahan’s data says State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien holds the most appeal for unenrolled voters. Kahan credits O’Brien’s role in cleaning up the Treasury in the wake of its $10 million embezzlement scandal and her vow to investigate Swift’s questionable "firings" of aides, done to facilitate their collecting state pensions (after Swift’s chief of staff, Peter Forman, quit to work on Swift’s gubernatorial campaign, for example, it emerged that Swift technically fired him so he could collect a state pension), as a record that would attract her suburban managerial professionals. To that list, Kahan could add O’Brien’s role in disclosing more than $1 billion in Big Dig cost overruns.
The next-most-appealing candidate, Kahan says, is former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman, a would-be politician who is himself a product of the suburban-professional-managerial class. His drawback? Lack of experience in governing. "Although Steve Grossman ... has shown great skill at managing his company, his lack of public-sector government experience in Massachusetts puts him at a disadvantage," she says in an interview.
What about Reich, the candidate who makes most hard-core Democrats swoon? Kahan warns that his focus on "traditional liberal" issues will scare some of her independents away. She adds that Reich’s visionary style may also alienate these voters. "I think these broad themes of how the government needs to re-address the way it does its job are little too lofty for this type of voter," she says. "They tend to understand the details and focus on the minutiae."
Former state representative Warren Tolman’s failure to move beyond his Clean Elections message won’t play well with independents, Kahan predicts — a forecast made before Tolman’s extensive Tuesday speech on health care. Such narrow focus on one issue, she adds, makes the independent voter suspicious.
Kahan has the worst news for Senate president Tom Birmingham: regardless of his advocacy for education reform, his role in two messy, prolonged budget fights will send independent voters running. "He’s caught up in the budgetary wrangling that won’t impress managers," she says. And why’s that? "They have to put budgets together every year," she notes matter-of-factly.
What about Romney’s appeal within the Route 128 belt? His vulnerability, according to Kahan, is similar to Grossman’s: no background in government work. For all Romney’s vaunted experience with the Olympics and as a highly successful manager in the world of finance, the bottom line is that the Belmont resident lacks the kind of governmental experience Kahan believes suburban managerial professionals want in their next governor. Look no further, she says, than to Romney’s March pledge to oppose delaying the statewide income-tax rollback, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2000. That steadfast opposition to any new revenues — in the face of budget deficits of more than $1 billion — made Romney look like a lightweight in the eyes of independent managerial types. "The new gubernatorial candidate suggested that he had not in fact developed new ideas of his own but instead planned to continue the failed efforts of the state’s previous Republican leadership," she writes.
THERE’S NO question that Kahan’s conclusions are compelling. All the Democrats — with the exception of Tolman — are already making a determined play for suburban-professional voters. All the candidates, Tolman included, attended Tuesday night’s gala dinner for MassINC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that focuses on the middle class (which encompasses many of Kahan’s independent voters).
O’Brien’s claim to fiscal-watchdog status seems directly aimed at capturing these voters, as does Grossman’s constant mantra that he has managed a company and met a payroll. Reich, meanwhile, is moving ever farther away from talk about costly programs and toward talk of "innovative" ideas. In a recent speech about housing policy, for example, his pitch to independent professional voters was clear: "This challenge is primarily a matter of public leadership, not public money," Reich declared. "Public dollars must be used wisely and strategically to leverage private investment. Strategic planning and carefully developed policies, in concert with the free market, can bring us closer to solving this crisis."
Even Birmingham, who has dubbed himself "the insider who’ll fight for the outsiders," is paying attention to independent voters. His campaign just spent an undisclosed sum of money emphasizing his commitment to state education reform, which, he stressed, helps the state economy. But Birmingham ought to beware. In 1998, according to a Voter News Service poll Kahan cites, Harshbarger won 75 percent of all independent voters who said education was the most important issue that year — though fewer than one in five named education as their first priority. The lesson: a focus on education will only get a candidate so far.
It’s possible that Kahan’s thesis, while of academic interest, bears little relation to the way politics really play out. Harshbarger, who went through two campaign managers, may have lost ultimately because he was an unpopular former prosecutor, a Lutheran in a heavily Catholic state, and a clumsy debater. Regardless, those particulars don’t alter the fact that 51 percent of the state’s voters are independent. Kahan provides insight into their preferences and ideology — or lack thereof — and makes clear that the battle for these voters will take place not at the convention, where the fight will belong to party insiders, but in the general election where Romney, the managerial professional extraordinaire, will confront one of the five Democrats.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com