OK, all of us Bay State pundits and analysts got to take it easy since Memorial Day, by responding to every question about the governor's race with the same answer: "Nobody pays attention until Labor Day." Trite, but essentially true -- and indeed the dynamic of the race seems essentially unchanged since Spring. But, now that Labor Day is behind us, and we have a televised debate tonight kicking off the 7-week race to election day, I should really do the obligatory 'where things stand' analysis. So here it is.
What we know, or think we know, from the remarkably consistent polling is this:
--Patrick holds a small lead, roughly 5 to 8 points, over Baker, with Cahill hanging around with about 15%.
--A solid majority of voters think Patrick has not been a good enough governor to deserve re-election; that sentiment is not just wide but deep, meaning it's unlikely to change much by Nov. 2.
--Most voters still have no impression of Baker at all.
Here are, roughly speaking, the cases for each of the three candidates having the path to victory:
Patrick: Still leading without spending a dime on ads. Cahill's support is strong enough to dig into votes Baker needs, even if (as most people assume) half of it disappears at the end when voters concede that he can't win. Baker's failure to define himself to this point means that A) he is in a poor position to attack, but even more importantly B) he is vulnerable to being negatively defined. Although it's true that a majority don't want to re-elect Patrick, a pretty good chunk of that opposition is not "intense" -- that is, rather than really disliking him and just wanting to give him the boot ASAP, these voters feel that on balance Patrick has been inadequate, maybe a 'C' grade governor. Many of those voters can be convinced through the campaign to revise that opinion up to a C+ or even B-; meanwhile, attacks on Baker will make those voters decide that -- even though they would still prefer to change to a new governor -- given the options, Patrick is the better bet. With Cahill in the race, and the Democratic base solidifying behind Patrick, he only needs to win over a small portion of that type of voter to get to the 44% or so he needs to win.
Baker: Doesn't need to do much of anything to convince voters to change governors -- they're already convinced. Baker just needs to keep putting the pressure on, keeping the focus of the campaign on Patrick and the state's problems, while gradually selling people on his own credentials and likability. The Big Dig and Harvard Pilgrim attacks will mean nothing to voters, and can be made to look like desperate attempts to distract from the real issues of the campaign. All Baker needs to do to win is not lose votes; if he accomplishes that, the anti-incumbent vote will coalesce around him, and will be more than enough to win.
Cahill: Baker has only emerged as the "serious" challenger because of the bombardment of attack ads on Cahill from the RGA. When Patrick (or his allies) unleash their assaults on Baker -- who has built up no goodwill among voters to fall back on -- his numbers will plummet. As Baker and Patrick blast one another, Cahill will emerge as the good guy in the race, the people's choice against the two business-as-usual candidates. As October polls show Cahill passing Baker, the anti-incumbent vote will coalesce around him -- a trend that will accelerate as he is viewed as the underdog with momentum. At that point, it will be too late for Patrick to stop him with a late attack.
Personally, I think the Patrick scenario is a little more likely at this point than the Baker scenario, with the Cahill scenario a long-shot but not an impossibility. But we're only just starting the main stretch of the campaign, so odds will change as things heat up.