Monday, June 9, 2014

Latest Massachusetts gubernatorial poll shows a sharp uptick in name recognition for lesser-known candidates

But candidates still have a significant ground to make up
by BRENT BENSON

The Massachusetts gubernatorial race to replace Governor Deval Patrick has been characterized three tiers of candidates—a very well-known candidate: Attorney General Martha Coakley; two candidates with some degree of name recognition: Treasurer Steve Grossman and former GOP candidate Charlie Baker; and three virtually unknown candidates: Juliette Kayyem, Donald Berwick, and Joe Avellone.

There has been very little movement in the lesser-known candidates' name recognition until the release of the latest Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll on June 9, which now shows a fairly sharp uptick in most of the candidates' name recognition numbers. The chart and graph below show the movement of the "never heard of" numbers for all of the candidates, except Attorney General Coakley.

The sharp drops in the "never heard of" numbers in the chart and graph show the start of positive movement in name recognition for these candidates. The least-known candidates—Berwick, Kayyem, and Avellone—show the largest increases in name recognition, with Kayyem showing the largest improvement of 14 points over the MassINC/WBUR poll of May 22.

Gov. candidate name recognition chart

Gov. candidate name recognition graph

While they still have a great deal of ground to make up, the candidates with lower levels of name recognition have some evidence that likely voters are starting to play closer attention to the race, and the Democratic candidates can work towards leveraging a strong performance at Saturday's convention into healthier levels of recognition before the September primary.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An overview of the 2014 Massachusetts State Senate races and candidates

About half of the 40 State Senate seats have challengers in 2014
by BRENT BENSON

On Thursday, May 29, the Massachusetts Secretary of State released the list of County and District candidates who qualified for the primary or general election ballot in 2014. This article breaks down that list and gives a high-level overview of the races and candidates for State Senate, which will be followed by an overview of the races for State Representative in an upcoming article.

There are 40 State Senate seats in Massachusetts, currently held by 36 Democrats and 4 Republicans. For this election cycle, 74 candidates have qualified for the ballot, made up of 49 Democrats, 22 Republicans, and 3 independent or unenrolled candidates. There are four sitting State Senators not seeking re-election and nine seats that have at least one major party primary.

There is an increase in contested races in 2014 over 2012, with 19 out of 40, or 48% of the State Senate seats having at least one challenger this year, compared to 16/40 (40%) in 2012. The following chart shows each State Senate district, the sitting incumbent, whether the seat is open (i.e. the incumbent is not running for re-election), and the number of candidates from each party that has qualified for the ballot. The uncontested races are shaded blue for Democratic incumbents and red for GOP incumbents.

MA State Senate Races, 2014

No candidate has qualified for the Worcester & Middlesex District represented by Senator Jen Flanagan, after a large number of Sen. Flanagan's nomination signatures were disallowed because the nomination papers were missing the candidate's city of residence. Flanagan is planning to run a sticker campaign for the primary and should have no problem getting 300 primary votes to qualify for the general election ballot.

This interactive map shows uncontested races in blue and red and uses darker shades of green for contested seats with larger numbers of candidates.



Open Seats

Four sitting State Senators are not running for re-election. Sen. Barry Finegold is running for State Treasurer, Sen. Gale Candaras is running for Hampden County Register of Probate, Senate President Therese Murray has been term-limited out of the Senate presidency and has decided not to run, and Senator Stephen Brewer is retiring.

State Senate Open Seats, 2014

An open seat creates an ideal opportunity new candidates to run for office, and also offer a much stronger chance for the non-incumbent party to flip the seat, so it is not surprising that 23% of the State Senate candidates are running for the 10% of the seats that are open. Each of these races features at least one Democrat and Republican, and two of the races also have third party candidates (America First and Libertarian).

State Senate Open Seat Candidates

The Second Essex & Middlesex seat features a three-way Democratic primary, including former State Representative Barbara L'Italien, who lost very close races for State Representative in 2010 and 2012.

The First Hampden & Hampshire District of Gale Candaras has the distinction of having seven candidates, the most of any State Senate race this year. There is a five-way Democratic primary, including former Obama White House Aide Eric Lesser. The race has a single Republican, and also an America First candidate, Mike Franco, who has run in the past as a Republican and does not currently live in the district.

There is no primary battle for Senate President Therese Murray's Plymouth & Barnstable seat, as there is a single Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian candidate. The Democrat is former State Representative Matt Patrick, and current GOP State Representative Vinny deMacedo is leaving the House to vie for this State Senate seat.

State Senator Stephen Brewer's Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire & Middlesex District has the longest district name, and is the only open race to feature a Republican primary between current and former Tantasqua Regional School Committee members James Ehrhard and Michael Valanzola. State Representative Anne Gobi has had success in a similarly conservative State Rep. district and is the only Democrat in the race.

Race with incumbents and primaries

We have already looked at the three opens seats that feature contested primaries, but there are an additional six seats that have both an incumbent and a primary. Three of the seats have a primary between non-incumbents, and three have the incumbent facing a primary challenge.

State Senate seats with primary battles

Additional contested primary candidates

Two Republicans, Ronald Beaty and Allen Waters, are facing off in a Republican primary to challenge incumbent State Senator Dan Wolf in the general election—Wolf gave up his bid for Governor after the State Ethics Commission raised issues with his ownership of Cape Air. In a similar fashion, there are two Democrats facing off in both the Second Hampden & Hampshire and Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex District primaries in order to challenge GOP State Senators Donald Humason and Richard Ross.

Three incumbent Democrats are facing primary threats. State Senator Kathleen O'Connor Ives is being challenged by fellow Democrat Jessica Finocchiaro, a School Committee Member and Massachusetts Young Democrats activist. State Senator Harriette Chandler faces a primary challenge from two Democrats, William Feegbeh and union candidate Sean Maher. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz is facing a primary challenge from Roy Owens, who is basing his candidacy on his opposition to abortion, giving him no chance to win in this incredibly liberal district. It has traditionally been very difficult to unseat a sitting state legislator in a primary without extenuating circumstances like a scandal, which we haven't seen in these races.

All Candidates

Here is the complete list of State Senate candidates who qualified for the ballot.

All qualifying candidates for State Senate

Supporting materials

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

An updated partisan ranking of Massachusetts State Representative districts

Including a model of Democratic margin and win probability
by BRENT BENSON

There are 160 State Representative Districts in Massachusetts—127 of the seats are held by Democrats, 29 are held by Republicans, and 4 are vacant. This article provides a ranking of all 160 districts from the deepest blue Democratic 6th Suffolk District of Russell Holmes in Boston, to Rep. Brad Jones's GOP stronghold in the 20th Middlesex District. I also provide a regression model that does a good job of explaining the vote margin between Republican vs. Democratic match-ups, using the Obama vote share in the district, and whether there is a Democratic or Republican incumbent in the race.

In my first partisan ranking of State Representative districts, I took a simple average of Democratic vs. Republican margins in the district for statewide candidates to determine the ranking. The ranking was somewhat limited by lack of precinct-by-precinct results for all districts. A finer-grained analysis of the Massachusetts towns and districts is made possible by the outstanding election statistics site published by the Massachusetts Secretary of State and built by Adam Friedman, which provides precinct-by-precinct results for Massachusetts elections. I was able to look for relationships between historical State Rep. race results, statewide candidate vote margins, and other factors, and found that the best predictors of State Rep. results were President Obama's margin in the district, combined with the State Rep. incumbency status. The resulting regression model allows for rough predictions of vote margins and win probabilities in contested Democrat vs. Republican State Rep. races.

The big takeaways from the model are that Democrats are doing better in GOP-leaning districts, than Republicans are doing in Democratic-leaning districts, and that incumbency means a great deal. An incumbent candidate of either party gets, on average, a 12 point increase in margin compared to a non-incumbent. An open race without an incumbent is the best way to flip a seat as we saw in the 4th Hampden special election on April 1, 2014, where Democrat John Velis was able to win in a district which had been held by Republican Donald Humason for 10 years.

The results are summarized in the following table ordered from most Democratic to most Republican. The table includes the expected Democratic margin in the district for each incumbency case, and then the probability of a Democratic win for each incumbency case.

There is a lot of blue at the top of the table and you need to get down to row 115 before find a district where the model shows a 50/50 race for an open seat—the 10th Worcester District of Democratic Rep. Dennis Rosa. Republicans Shauna O'Connell and Leah Cole have beaten the odds by getting elected in the Democratic leaning 3rd Bristol and 12th Essex Districts, which President Obama won by almost 18 points. On the other side of the coin, Democratic Representatives Colleen Garry, Josh Cutler, and Rhonda Nyman have defied the odds in districts where the President lost by around 8 points and where the model gives an incumbent Democrat a less than 40% chance of winning against a challenging Republican.


Let's take a look at incumbents who have succeeded in unlikely district. In 19 of the 160 districts the incumbent's party is predicted to have a less than 50-50 chance to win the district in an open race. Four of those incumbents are Republicans and 15 are Democrats. All of these Representatives have, at some level, beaten the odds to get elected in a challenging district.

Four of those incumbents—the already mentioned GOP Reps Shaunna O'Connell and Leah Cole, and three Democratic Reps Colleen Garry, Josh Cutler, and Rhonda Nyman—are actually in districts where the regression model predicts average incumbent of their party would lose to a challenger of the other party. It is clear that candidates can, and do, win in unfavorable partisan climates due to factors like a particularly strong campaign, a weak opponent, holding positions associated with the other party, or a particularly long service to the community, among other factors.

Incumbent Reps with opposite leaning districts

The following map allows for interactive exploration of the districts. The shading is based on the probability of a party's win in an open race.



Explanation and analysis

The identification of presidential margin and incumbency status as key predictors of State Rep. election results was done using regression analysis. This table shows the relationship between State Rep. race margin and Presidential race margin (normalized agains the Massachusetts average) for each incumbency status, and also shows the regression line which best approximates the relationship between the variables.

Contested State Rep margin vs. Presidential results

Each point on the regression graph is a line in the table below of the 2010 and 2012 State Representative races which had both a Republican and a Democrat. The analysis ignores third-party and independent candidates and looks only at the two-party vote share and margin. The table is sorted first by a classification as to whether there was a Democratic incumbent, no incumbent, or a Republican incumbent, and then by President Obama's margin in the district (negative for a loss), normalized by subtracting the President's margin for all of Massachusetts. This normalization allows for some kind of comparison between the 2008 results (which are used for the 2010 races) and the 2012 results (used for the 2012 races). The Predicted Margin column shows the State Rep. margin as predicted by the regression line.

Contested State Rep. Races 2010 2012

Supporting data

These online documents contain searchable, sortable, and downloadable data used for this analysis:

Friday, May 23, 2014

New poll in Massachusetts Governor's race shows little increase in name recognition

Only three candidates are known by a majority of the respondents
by BRENT BENSON

The MassINC Polling Group survey of 503 likely voters conducted from May 16 to 18 for WBUR showed no increase in the number of voters that had an opinion of the Democratic and Republican candidates for Massachusetts Governor when compared to previous surveys from this year. There was a very slight decrease in the percentage of respondents who said they had never heard of each candidate, except Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Here are the summarized results from the all of this year's public polls with the percentage of respondents that have a favorable or unfavorable view of each candidate. These numbers have been remarkably stable in the past five months. The candidates with single digit name recognition have a great deal of ground to make up in the next several months, presumably by a strong showing at the Democratic State Convention in June. However, these candidates have much lower name recognition than Deval Patrick had at a similar time in his first election cycle, a previous example of a candidate who made up a lot of name recognition ground very quickly.

Respondents with opinion of candidates (chart)

Respondents with opinion of candidates (graph)

If we look at the percentage of survey respondents who say they have never heard of each candidate—a slightly lower bar to get over than actually having a favorable or unfavorable opinion—there does seem to be a slight improvement for every candidate, except Attorney General Coakley. However, the never-heard-of numbers are decreasing at a very slow rate, not nearly fast enough to get the lesser-known candidates to where they need to be for the September primary.

Respondents who never heard of candidate (chart)

Respondents who never heard of candidate (graph)
Updated May 23 with fix to Coakley's never-heard-of percentage in latest MassINC poll.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Adjusting MA governor polls for name recognition gives clearer picture of Democratic candidate potential

Adjustment shows three candidate tiers: Coakley > Grossman, Kayyem, Berwick > Avellone
by BRENT BENSON

Polling of the Democratic primary for the Massachusetts Governor's race has been defined by strong name recognition and performance by Attorney General Martha Coakley, and much lower name recognition for the remaining four candidates: Treasurer Steve Grossman, Juliette Kayyem, Donald Berwick, and Joe Avellone. Adjusting the poll results for name recognition still shows Coakley outperforming the other candidates, but also reveals a bunched second tier—Grossman, Kayyem, and Berwick—with Avellone trailing well behind the others.

An average of the last three polls of the Massachusetts gubernatorial race shows Martha Coakley with a commanding lead of 47%, followed by Steve Grossman at 11%, Juliette Kayyem just above 3%, Donald Berwick just under 3%, and Joe Avellone below 1%. However, it is difficult to interpret these poll results given the name recognition of well below 50% for four of the five candidates, as seen in the second table.

MA Gov Democratic Polling Average

MA Gov Democratic Name Recognition

There is some precedent, at least in Presidential primaries, for candidates who start with very low name recognition to become the eventual nominee and election winner (think Jimmy Carter). However, Presidential primary history also shows that strong early polling performance often portends electoral success. A measured analysis gives credit to well-known and well-liked candidates, while also acknowledging the potential of lesser-known candidates to break through and succeed, albeit with a smaller probability of success.

Nate Silver, in his analysis of Presidential primary polling, introduces the concept of a Recognition-Adjusted Polling Average where the polling average is divided by the name recognition, showing us the percentage of respondents that recognized the candidate, who also supported that candidate. For example, since 10% of survey respondents have an opinion of Juliette Kayyem, and 3.1% of the total number of respondents chose Kayyem in a ballot test, we know that about 31% of the people who know Juliette Kayyem also support her as their first choice for the Democratic nomination. The following table computes the recognition-adjusted polling average for each candidate, and then normalizes the results to add up to 100% in this zero-sum electoral contest.

MA Gov Adjusted Polling Average

The recognition-adjusted average still shows Attorney General Coakley with a commanding lead of 15 points over her competition, with Grossman, Kayyem, and Berwick clustered around 20%, and Joe Avellone in a distant fifth place with about a 6% share.

It is not appropriate, however, to take these recognition-adjusted polling numbers as a prediction for the eventual primary result. Rather, these numbers are more of an indication of potential of what the lesser-known candidates can start to achieve if/when they break through and achieve more name recognition by a strong performance at the convention, or by some other means.

Early polls are important for establishing baselines, to understand the potential makeup of the electorate, and to give us a window into how voters feel about issues that may affect the race. However, news organizations often want to reduce these nascent results down to an electoral horserace interpretation, disregarding aspects like name recognition.

That being said, we are getting close to the point in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race where low name recognition can no longer be used as an excuse by the lesser-known candidates, and where it must be treated as something that must overcome to have a shot at victory in September. Each of the candidates need to win 15% of the total delegates at the Democratic State Convention in June to make the primary ballot, and a strong showing at the convention may also be needed to boost candidate visibility with the Democratic primary electorate who will pick their nominee on September 9.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The April 1 special election surprise was not Jason Lewis's 5th Middlesex win

Redistricting changes point toward similar results if Lewis is challenged in November
by BRENT BENSON

Democratic candidates swept the special state elections on Tuesday, April 1, with the biggest surprise coming from Democratic newcomer John Velis's victory over Republican Dan Allie to represent the 4th Hampden State Representative District. The Westfield seat had been vacated by Republican and now-State Senator Donald Humason and held by the GOP for 36 years.

Less surprising was State Representative Jason Lewis's (D-Winchester) win over Republican Melrose Alderman Monica Medeiros in a special election to replace Congresswoman Katherine Clark as State Senator for the 5th Middlesex District. Lewis had 10,610 votes (53.5%) to Medeiros's 9,229 votes (46.5%). Lewis's 7 point margin (compared to Clark's 4.6 point margin in her 2010 win over Craig Spadafora) points toward a strong campaign, combined with a 2011 redistricting that made the district more Democratic.

Recent election results led me to predict a likely Democratic win in the 5th Middlesex in my overview of the March 4 primaries. I received pushback because a previous version of the district was held by a Republican for 20 years. Analysis showed a redistricting shift to the left by about 4 points, but there was additional pushback about using presidential results as a baseline for the shift. However, even a cursory analysis of the redistricting points towards a move to the left from the Middlesex and Essex District—held by 20 years by Republican Richard Tisei—to the 5th Middlesex District. While this district could be won by a strong GOP candidate who outworked and out-raised a Democratic nominee, Lewis's increased margin should not come as a big surprise.

5th Middlesex special election results

The 5th Middlesex State Senate District consists of Malden, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, and half of Winchester.  A precinct-by-precinct look at the April 1 results shows Representative Lewis winning all precincts in Malden, Winchester, and Stoneham, the central precincts of Reading, and the western precincts of Melrose. Alderman Medeiros won the outer precincts of Reading, all of Wakefield, and the eastern precincts of Melrose.

PRECINCT-BY-PRECINCT MARGINS (click for interactive version)
5th Middlesex Special Results

5th Middlesex Results vs. Projection

My Democratic projection for the 5th Middlesex precincts was arrived at by comparing President Obama performance in the old district (normalized against the state average) in 2008, to his performance in the new district (again normalized against the state average) in 2012, showing a shift of 4.2 points to the left (not surprising given the removal of the very conservative Lynnfield, and the addition of more liberal precincts in Winchester and Melrose). Adding this 4.2 point shift to Katherine Clark's 4.6 margin, gave us a projected 8.8 point win by a strong Democrat—similar to Clark—in the new 5th Middlesex.

Variation by city and town

Representative Lewis did not quite achieve an 8.8 point margin of victory. While there are probably many factors involved, there is evidence that there was a hometown affect in Melrose and Winchester. Political candidates often perform better in their hometown, especially when their hometown or city is listed next to their names on the ballot, as is done in Massachusetts elections. Alderman Medeiros did better than our simplistic expectations in her hometown of Melrose and Lewis outperformed in his town of Winchester. However, only half of Winchester is in the 5th Middlesex Senate District—only 9% of the April 1 vote came from Winchester—while 17% of voters came from Melrose. In addition, low turnout elections like the April 1 special election tend to draw older voters who are more conservative, on average.

While the hometown affect is likely to explain Mederios's performance in Melrose, and Lewis's in Winchester, the other municipalities that differ from expectations are Stoneham (which was about 17 points more Democratic than expected by the naive model) and Wakefield (which was about 8 point more Republican than expected). Lewis's strong performance in Stoneham is likely due to the fact that he represented all but one precinct of Stoneham as State Representative—most Stoneham voters have seen Lewis on the ballot since 2008. The reason for Medeiros's strong performance in Wakefield is less clear. One possibility could be the loss of Wakefield native and former School Committee Chair Anthony Guardia to Lewis in the March 4 primary, but there is little evidence to support that supposition.

November rematch prospects

Alderman Medeiros has indicated she is encouraged by her showing in the special election and is reviewing her plans for Fall accordingly, presumably meaning she is considering challenging Lewis again in the November general election. While there is plenty of time for circumstances to change before November and the top of the Democratic ticket for Massachusetts Governor has yet to be determined, a general election electorate should be slightly more favorable to Lewis, meaning an even bigger uphill climb for Mediros in November.

Addendum made on 4/8/2014:

A close look at the turnout from each of the 5th Middlesex cities and towns on April 1 compared to the November, 2010 turnout statewide gubernatorial election (which is closer to what we would see in a November, 2014 rematch with Medeiros) looks to provide a much bigger buffer to Jason Lewis. The model estimates a 10.4 point win by Lewis given the April 1 margins in each municipality combined with a turnout like November, 2010.

Change in results based on 2010 turnout model

Friday, March 21, 2014

Polling of Massachusetts Governor's race still a story of mostly unknown candidates

Democratic ballot test performance driven by name recognition of candidate
by BRENT BENSON

On Thursday, March 20 the MassINC Polling Group released a new poll of the Massachusetts Governor's race commissioned by WBUR. While WBUR led with Attorney General Martha Coakley maintaining a large lead in the race, the most important aspect of the poll—the continuing low name recognition of the non-Coakley candidates—was only covered in passing in comments by pollster Steve Koczela in the on-air interview.

In fact, the performance of the Democratic candidates on the Democratic Primary ballot test is defined, and drastically limited, by low name recognition, as the following charts and graph will show. These early polls give us very little information about how these candidates will fair in the September primary or November general election after voters begin to pay attention to the race and get to know and differentiate between the top-tier candidates.

MA Governor name recognition chart

The key number is the 75% of respondents that have an opinion of Martha Coakley, which is the driver for her performance in the primary ballot test against the other Democrats, and in her 41% to 26% lead over Charlie Baker in the general election ballot test. Charlie Baker and Steve Grossman are the next closest candidates with 44% and 29% respectively. The remaining candidates are largely unknown to Massachusetts voters.

The next chart shows the share of the respondents that said they would vote for each of the candidates in the Democratic primary.

MA Governor Dem. ballot test chart

There is a strong correlation between the Democratic Primary ballot test percentages and the Has opinion column in the name recognition chart. A linear regression between the ballot test percentage and the name recognition percentage shows the strength of this relationship. While the amount of data is small, you would expect candidates to be well above or below the line if they were over- or under-performing within the pool of voters who knew them.

Ballot test vs. name recognition

Martha Coakley's name recognition, combined with her favorable/unfavorable numbers are a positive sign for her prospects in the fall elections, and at some point low name recognition will be a problem for the lesser-known candidates. However, history points towards an tightening of the race as candidates who build statewide organizations have an opportunity to make their case to the voters when the election moves into its next stage and voters are actually paying attention.