A new WBUR poll of Massachusetts residents confirms that the incumbent governor, Charlie Baker, is overwhelmingly popular and in excellent position to win a second term by a landslide. Baker is viewed favorably by 67 percent of poll respondents (compared to just 9 percent with unfavorable views) and leads each of his two potential general-election opponents by an identical 40-point margin. The 2018 election will feature pivotal and highly competitive governors' races in a number of states from Maine to Nevada, but we Bay Staters appear likely to be deprived of such excitement this fall.
Baker is a Republican running in a normally Democratic state and a pro-Democratic national electoral environment, yet he is not merely favored to win but heavily so. In an era in which it is fashionable to characterize Americans as hopelessly "tribal" in their partisan loyalties, he has managed to become broadly well-liked across party lines (in fact, according to the WBUR data, Baker is slightly more popular with Massachusetts Democrats than among his fellow Republicans). Baker's success thus represents a rare outlying case that allows us to better understand the foundations of contemporary political conflict in the United States. What has allowed him to escape the partisan wars that have scarred so many other politicians?
Part of the answer is Baker's own public persona. He has made efforts to define himself as an ideological moderate by breaking with conservative doctrine on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and gun control, and he has not proposed deep budget cuts in education or other popular public programs. Baker has also distanced himself from his party's national leadership, refusing to endorse Donald Trump (whose favorability rating in Massachusetts is just 29 percent, according to the WBUR poll) in 2016 and publicly criticizing the president's actions and words on several occasions.
But the behavior of the Democratic opposition is also important. By and large, Democratic leaders in the state legislature and state constitutional offices have taken a cooperative approach to the Baker administration rather than attempting to exacerbate partisan rancor at every turn. Democratic voters who are liable to take cues from their own party officials when forming opinions on political matters thus have little reason to form a critical view of Baker's governorship. Because both of the possible Democratic nominees for governor are relative unknowns with limited fundraising capacity, the 2018 campaign is unlikely to change enough Democrats' minds about the incumbent's job performance to plunge him into electoral danger.
For all the evidence that Democratic and Republican citizens increasingly disagree over policy issues and view each other in negative personal terms, it's still important to acknowledge the role of messages from elites—politicians, interest group leaders, media figures—in regulating the climate of partisan conflict. The mass public is often portrayed as fatally inattentive to political nuance, but it does seem to notice when party leaders prize collaboration over confrontation (and vice versa). At the national level, however, it has become rare for both sides to view mutual cooperation as serving their interests at the same time—and even if party leaders themselves wish to turn down the partisan temperature, they face increasing pressure to remain maximally combative from ideological media outlets and other powerful actors, especially on the Republican side.
One of the common themes of this blog is that politics is inevitably full of tradeoffs. For Charlie Baker, a moderate and mild-mannered governing style may well guarantee him a second term in office but will almost certainly prevent him from rising in the national Republican Party. For Donald Trump, slash-and-burn politics has succeeded in satisfying conservative activists and media authorities, but at the cost of legislative productivity and an unusually energized Democratic opposition. Yes, Americans are collectively divided these days—but it's important to note that such developments don't happen on their own. Inevitably, there are political leaders, whether in or out of office, who are doing the dividing.