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Democrats running for governor are pitching fundamental change. Is that what Mass. voters want?

From left to right: Gubernatorial candidates Ben Downing, Danielle Allen, and Sonia Chang-Díaz are all promising big changes. But is that what Massachusetts voters want?
From left to right: Gubernatorial candidates Ben Downing, Danielle Allen, and Sonia Chang-Díaz are all promising big changes. But is that what Massachusetts voters want?Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff, Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For Harvard professor Danielle Allen, “this is a moment for transformation.”

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz says it’s time to reject a “status quo” that doesn’t work for everyone.

And Ben Downing, a former state senator, insists “small politics and small solutions don’t meet the moment.”

In the early days of the primary campaign, the three Democrats running for governor next year are voicing strikingly similar messages: Don’t settle for Governor Charlie Baker’s narrow, slow incrementalism! Elect me, they exhort, and we’ll build a better, fairer state together — sooner.

But their pitch faces the strong headwind of public opinion: Many are happy with the Massachusetts they’ve got, and more still approve of the governor who’s currently leading it.

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Baker’s job approval ratings remain among the highest in the nation, and in a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents said Massachusetts was “heading in the right direction,” a consistent trend here in recent years.

Regardless of whether it’s Baker on the ticket or another Republican running to continue the administration’s legacy, Democrats will probably have to persuade many voters who are already satisfied with their lot to vote for a seismic shift — for “bold, transformative change,” as Chang-Díaz has put it.

It’s a tall order, but “that’s the only path to victory,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. They’re all trying to take the shine off Baker, she added.

Baker seems to reject their characterization that he’s a status quo governor, suggesting change can move only as quickly as the political system allows.

“Most of the things we do we believe are important and transformative. We wouldn’t do them if we didn’t,” Baker said when asked about the Democrats’ messaging at a ribbon-cutting in Quincy last month.

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“But there is this thing called the process that we all have to work our way through. And everybody who participates in it, including us, needs to recognize and understand that the process sometimes takes a little longer to become transformative than we might like.”

Baker hasn’t announced whether he’ll seek a third term, saying that he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito are discussing the matter with their families.

(Meanwhile, Republican Geoff Diehl, a former state representative, launched a gubernatorial bid this week.)

Pitching ambitious change is a natural tactic for Democrats seeking an office that’s been held by Republicans for all but eight of the last 30 years. But the message “would only work if you could establish that things are bad,” which is not what most currently believe, according to polling, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

The share of residents who said Massachusetts was headed in the “right direction” in a late March poll, 64 percent, was relatively consistent across gender, geographic regions, racial and ethnic lines, and urban, suburban, and rural areas. And even more residents may be feeling positive now, as COVID restrictions have been lifted over the last three months.

In October 2018, about the same share of likely voters, 69 percent, thought the state was headed in the right direction — and Baker trounced Democratic nominee Jay Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s message — that the state should aim higher than Baker’s incrementalism — proved unpersuasive to voters; four years later, some analysts question whether Democrats will have any success making a similar pitch this time around.

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For many residents, though, the evidence of inequity and struggle is particularly obvious after a plague year that exposed and deepened disparities along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. The Democratic candidates point to enormous gaps in educational opportunities and vaccination rates between white residents and people of color. On cornerstone issues like transportation and climate change, they say Massachusetts is falling behind while it should be forging ahead. And they point to what they say is a litany of management failures by Baker’s administration.

And the candidates said their conversations with voters reveal needs that are not being met by state government.

Most residents may believe the state is “headed in the right direction,” but that “is not the same as ‘at the pace that I want change to be happening,’” Chang-Díaz said. “Even nibbling around the edges, making what you’d call progress in a raw quantitative sense . . . it doesn’t match the level of struggle that people are facing every day. It’s that mismatch that I think people are hungry to cure.”

Part of the task for Democrats, analysts say, will be persuading those who are doing well that a different government could help them do better — and persuading the state’s many haves that Democrats can better lift up the have-nots.

It’s possible, Allen said, “for many people to experience things being on the right track, but for a substantial minority to have things be on a very wrong track.”

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“The real question is, how can we build recognition of what the whole Commonwealth altogether is experiencing?” she said. “The goal should be to bring everybody into that place of being on the right track.”

The first hurdle will be getting voters interested in an election that’s still more than a year away. Then, Democrats have to sell an ideology: State officials can make sweeping positive change — not just manage problems, they way the candidates claim Baker does.

“I don’t believe that government’s role is to manage the status quo and minimize change,” Downing said.

But that may be a challenging message to win on. The appeal of tuning out a government that’s running smoothly enough helped Joe Biden win the presidency, said Jonathan Cohn, elections committee chair for the group Progressive Massachusetts: “Your pitch to voters of, ‘Don’t you want to forget that I exist?’ ”

The Democrats seeking Baker’s job, Cohn said, have to make a different and more difficult case: “‘You should want to know that I exist. I want to help you.’”

Outside Market Basket in Somerville on a recent evening, few shoppers had politics on their minds. Even those who did had little bad to say about the governor.

Katherine Hurxthal, a 77-year-old retired nurse who lives in Cambridge, said she intends to vote for the Democratic nominee for governor and has been impressed by Allen.

Still, she said, she doesn’t believe Baker is “doing everything wrong.”

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“I don’t think we necessarily need radical changes,” in Massachusetts, she said. “I don’t hate [Baker]. I’ve never voted for him . . . but he seems sincere.”

Patrick Agri, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer, said he likes that after four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Baker’s leadership has allowed him to tune out politics and trust that government is functioning.

“For the most part, [politics] should almost be on the back burner of everyone’s mind,” he said. He praised Baker’s handling of the pandemic and said he appreciates that politics now feels subdued enough that he can focus on other things. Under Baker, he said, you can “just go about your life and things will be OK.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.