Massachusetts “Technocrats”: Better than political hacks

Last week’s blog post introduced my theory that, in the modern television/internet era, the candidate who is most personally “likable” wins.

In short, the theory is that there are two kinds of candidates who are favored to win any political election – inspirational candidates who speak to the heart of the American people (think Reagan or Obama), and candidates with authentic “people skills” who come across as individuals with whom average Americans would enjoy hanging out (think George W. Bush or Bill Clinton).  These “Visionaries” and “Beer Candidates,” as I call them, will almost always beat good government “Technocrats” or candidates for whom the elected office appears to be the inevitable next rung on the candidate’s career ladder.

Today, I am going to discuss how this theory applies to recent Massachusetts elections.

Let’s start with our current governor, Republican Charlie Baker.

Baker is, as Meredith Warren writes in yesterday’s Boston Globe, “Mr. Fix It” – a leader concerned more with good government and incremental change than ideology.

Some Massachusetts Republicans, like Warren, consider this approach positive. Others, like Republican National Committeewoman Chanel Prunier, wish that Baker would be more of a conservative visionary and adopt the leadership style of his predecessor, Democrat Deval Patrick, who emphasized big themes and more ideological priorities.

But although Warren and Prunier may disagree with respect to how Baker should govern, both agree (as a descriptive matter) that Baker is a classic technocrat.

My point here is not to wade into the normative debate about how Baker should lead, but simply to point out that, as a political matter, his leadership style had (and may continue to have) electoral consequences.

In 2010, when Baker (the Technocrat) challenged Patrick (the Visionary), Baker lost. Baker learned some important lessons between 2010 and 2014. In 2010, candidate Baker released countless detailed policy initiatives that gave his opponent lots to tear apart. In 2014, Baker campaigned on fewer specifics, shedding some of his policy-wonk persona and assuming more of a “regular guy” demeanor. Despite lessons learned, Baker did not shy away from his image as a Technocrat. But with an opponent like Attorney General Martha Coakley (a Careerist), Baker prevailed. Remember, according to my Rock, Paper, Scissors theory of electoral politics, Visionaries usually trump Technocrats, but Technocrats often beat Careerists.

Consider Romney’s 2006 victory over Democrat Shannon O’Brien. Romney, a Technocrat like Baker, easily defeated the sitting state Treasurer, who was widely perceived to be a government hack/Careerist. No surprise there. But would Romney have defeated Deval Patrick (a Visionary)? My guess is that he would not have.

Now let’s apply the theory to Scott Brown’s two campaigns for United States Senate from Massachusetts. Brown is clearly a Beer Candidate, in the mold of Clinton or George W. So, when he ran against Coakley (a Careerist), he won.

His race against Elizabeth Warren posed a tougher challenge, and I will be the first to admit that I got this one wrong. At the time, I viewed Warren as a Coakley-like Careerist. She turned out to be a progressive Visionary, complete with soak-the-rich rhetoric.  (Remember “You didn’t build that”?) In a race between Visionary Warren and Beer Candidate Brown, the Visionary prevailed.

Of course, political leadership style is not the only factor that impacts the outcome of elections. And the Rock, Paper, Scissors theory of politics is by no means the only lens through which we can analyze political races. But I believe that, in the modern era, it can tell us a lot about who is likely to win or lose.

Next time: Rock, Paper Scissors and the 2016 presidential field.