Every once in a while you come across a poll number that is so shocking that you do a double-take. Or a triple-take. Or even more takes.
That’s exactly what happened to me this week when I was paging through a new poll of likely Democratic primary voters in Massachusetts that was conducted by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Ostensibly, the big news in the poll was that Sen. Ed Markey has opened up a 12-point edge over Rep. Joe Kennedy III in advance of Tuesday’s high-profile (and expensive) Democratic primary. And that is a big deal! A Kennedy scion potentially losing a primary in Massachusetts is very newsworthy!
But if you dig through the poll’s other questions, you come across one about how voters feel about the job Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is doing. And that is where the take-your-breath-away number reveals itself.
Overall, 89% of likely Democratic primary voters approve of the job Baker is doing – including 54% who strongly approve. Nine in 10 Democratic primary voters – aka the most partisan of Democratic voters – think the Republican governor of their state is doing a good job. A majority of Democratic primary voters strongly approve of how Baker is handling his job as governor! After almost five years on the job!
And Baker’s numbers are made even more impressive when you consider a few other data points in the poll. Like the fact that just 7% approve of the job President Donald Trump is doing. And 92% of likely Democratic primary voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Those numbers are consistent with what you would think a sample of likely Democratic primary voters might think about the President and the general direction of the country. Which suggests that the poll is, generally speaking, right on. And which affirms that the Baker numbers, as hard to believe as they are, paint an accurate portrait of how Massachusetts Democrats feel about their governor.
How did Baker get to such amazing polling heights among Democrats – particularly in a national political environment that is more polarized than any in modern history?
The most obvious answer is in how he has approached the coronavirus pandemic. Baker has largely governed as a non-partisan amid the myriad challenges posed by Covid-19. He was quick to shut down the state in the face of the rising spread in the spring and continues to move slowly when it comes to reopening. “We want to focus our efforts and time on (schools reopening) and don’t anticipate doing anything in regards to the current state of play on the guidance and advisories with respect to other businesses,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Once criticized for being an emotionless businessman, Baker has also shown his more human side during the pandemic. In early April, standing in an airport hangar where the New England Patriots’ plane had brought much-needed personal protective equipment for the state, Baker was visibly moved. “You hear enough of those stories and you get pretty bent about your inability to help,” he explained later. “And so when we finally managed to land the plane yesterday, that was a really big deal.”
But Baker’s popularity – even among Democrats – predates the pandemic. In an article in September 2017 – roughly three years into his first term – the Boston Globe wrote a piece headlined: “Why is Charlie Baker so popular?”
“For now, at least for many of the state’s residents, Baker is the Goldilocks governor: just right. His wonky, straightforward style stands in stark contrast to that of his party’s bombastic leader, President Trump.
“What’s more, Massachusetts’ economy is strong, and unemployment is low; there’s a sense among voters that the state is generally headed in the right direction, while the nation is on the wrong track; Baker has crafted a likable media persona; he’s presented himself as a fiscal check on the Democratic Legislature; and there’s been an apparent dearth of crises in state government.”
Baker has only grown more popular since then. In a previous UMass-Lowell poll in May, the governor even rivaled New England staple Dunkin’ Donuts in a popularity contest. Seventy three percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Dunkin’ while 72% viewed Baker favorably. (Related: “I’m like the mayor of Dunkin’.”)
And as the Globe noted, at least some chunk of that support – especially among Democrats – is in the stark contrast between Baker’s approach to government and that of Donald Trump. Baker, like Trump, was a successful businessman before running for office. But other than that, the two men have little in common. Baker, due at least in part to political necessity in such a strongly Democratic state, has avoided the sort of political name-calling and overt partisan gambits that have become Trump’s trademark. And unlike many of his fellow Republican elected officials, Baker hasn’t been shy in speaking out against Trump.
Following Trump’s condemnation of violence following the protests in response to the death of George Floyd in late May, Baker said this: “At so many times during these past several weeks when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it was simply nowhere to be found. Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness, and self-interest. That’s not what we need in Boston. That’s not what we need right now in Massachusetts. And it’s definitely not what we need across this great country of ours either.” And while Baker said he voted in the Republican presidential primary in Massachusetts in early March, he wouldn’t say who he voted for. “I said before I wasn’t going to get into presidential politics, and I’m not going to do it tonight,” he explained at the time.
The question that has to be asked when you see a Republican politician with the sort of cross-party popularity that Baker has demonstrated now for years is: What does he do next? After all, there has to be a place on the national level for a Republican who can earn a nearly 90% approval rating among Democrats while also, generally speaking, keeping Republicans happy too, right?
Wrong. The Republican Party of Donald Trump has moved hard to the ideological right. Where there was once a case to be made that a moderate lane existed for someone with Baker’s profile to make a credible run for the GOP presidential nomination, now the only debate is who will hug Trump the hardest in their attempts to win the 2024 nod.
Parties change, of course. They evolve. And Baker’s brand of Republicanism could come back into vogue sooner than we all expect.
For now he’ll just have to comfort himself with being the most popular governor in America.