The Big 5, With 5 Days Left


It's now just five days to election day in Boston, when five powerhouse pols vie for four at-large city council seats. (I have been greatly impressed by Will Dorcena and Sean Ryan, the other two candidates on the ballot, but neither is likely to have a chance at cracking the top four.)

All five have won city-wide before. Two have run serious campaigns for higher office and may do so again; the other three are expected to have higher office in their future. All have strong bases of support, experienced staff, devoted volunteers. So, this is a major league game of musical chairs.

Also, five days out is when I start considering the weather forecast -- and as of now it says Tuesday will be sunny, in the low 60s. Perfect voting weather.

This will be a low-turnout affair, with a sharp divide between the city as a whole, which is mostly tuned out, and the so-called "supervoters" who always show up at the polls. The candidates, understandably, devote all their time and resources (phone calls, door knocks, mailings) on those supervoters -- which widens the gap, leaving the rest of the city even more uninformed and disengaged, and less likely to participate.

Those who are part of the supervoter subset are not always terribly well-informed, but in the at-large field the ones who actually get to the polls usually have one or two specific candidates who they know and like pretty well. This is also a self-reinforcing electorate trait, because campaigns direct their get-out-the-vote efforts at their "ones," which for those of you outside the rarified world of political campaigns refers to voters who have told the campaign they are definitely voting for that candidate. So, for example the Connolly campaign identifies its "ones," and targets its final effort toward getting those "ones" to the polling place. Voters who are undecided don't get this kind of devoted follow-up, because why would the Connolly folks spend its time and resources dragging somebody out who might vote for somebody else?

All of this is true of pretty much all elections, but is intensified in low-turnout affairs like this one.

In addition, this race is unusual for two reasons.

First, most races are either A) riding down-ballot, with turnout driven by something bigger, like a governor's race; or B) itself something big, like a governor's race. In both cases, the effort to identify and bring out "ones" is really an attempt to affect at the margins, because large numbers of voters are just showing up on their own. In this race, however, the at-large is the biggest, most high-profile race on the ballot (except perhaps in District 3) -- but it's not high-profile enough for large numbers of people to just show up for it.

The second oddity is that this is a multiple-vote election. In most races, getting out your ones is a straightforward, zero-sum thing: if Suzanne Lee, for example, gets one of her ones to show up to vote in District 2, you chalk up a gain of one for her over Bill Linehan. But in the at-large race, when Connolly gets one of his ones to the polls, that person can go on to cast three more votes in the same race, for Connolly's competitors.

This long-winded exposition gets me to finally making my point, which is that forces in this particular election conspire to ensure that the electorate will consist of a fairly small number of people, who have definite plans to vote for at least one specific candidate, but are probably winging it from there.

Which means that there are two big keys to the results. First, how strong is each candidate's "base" turnout tomorrow? Second, what does each candidate's base do with the rest of their votes?

Some examples:

--Will Michael Flaherty's base voters in Southie, Dorchester, and Charlestown "bullet" their guy (ie, use just the one vote)? If so, that probably takes votes from Murphy.

--Will Felix Arroyo's base among labor follow their locals' endorsements, which in many cases would include Ayanna Pressley but not Flaherty? Or do they go with their instincts and past votes, which in many cases would be the reverse?

--Will Pressley's base among progressives vote to return the four incumbents, or will they give a vote to Flaherty, who many of them voted for when he teamed up with Sam Yoon in the '09 mayoral race?

--Will Connolly's base in West Roxbury follow his advice to return all four incumbents, or do they give a vote to the more familiar Flaherty? And if so, at whose expense?

--Will black voters give a vote to Dorcena, along with (in most cases) Pressley and Arroyo, leaving them only one additional vote? And who gets that vote, if anybody?

You could keep adding questions to this list. Honestly, I think it's possible, in guessing the answers to these questions, to construct a scenario in which any one of the big five lands in the fifth spot -- although some scenarios are considerably more or less likely than others.

I believe that Connolly will top the ticket, and Arroyo will finish second -- and the other three could end up in any order at all.

I have said all along that I thought Ayanna Pressley is the most likely of the five to get a rock. But today, from talking to people in and around the campaigns, and others plugged in around the city, I think the answers to questions like those above are most likely to play out in a way that leaves Murphy out.

So if I had to wager right now, I'd predict a final order of 1) Connolly, 2) Arroyo, 3) Flaherty, 4) Pressley, 5) Murphy.

My level of confidence in any of that remains low, so I would not be at all surprised to be wildly wrong about any of that. But at least the weather should be nice.

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