Attorney General Martha Coakley, despite a commanding lead in public opinion polls of Massachusetts Democratic voters, has failed to produce a strong showing among grass-roots activists in the party caucuses that are an early test of the gubernatorial candidates.
About halfway through the monthlong caucus process, early results provided by all five Democratic campaigns show Coakley markedly trailing Treasurer Steven Grossman, underscoring doubts among party leaders about her ability to head the general-election ticket.
But the biggest bloc of delegates, so far, is the roughly 50 percent who are publicly uncommitted, a historic number that reflects a field of candidates that has yet to generate the kind of enthusiasm that has animated recent Democratic campaigns.
Operatives for all five campaigns say gathering concrete data from caucuses is more political art than scientific head counting, and even delegates committed to individual candidates can shift allegiances when Democrats gather for their statewide convention in June.
“There’s a lot of interest in the race, but a lot of uncommitted delegates across the board, more up for grabs than any election I’ve ever seen,” said state Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat.
Coakley’s early shortcoming among delegates conflicts with her campaign’s promises last fall that she was focused on ground-level organizing, rather than fund-raising.
Her advisers now say that her strategic emphasis lies not on the convention, which all five campaigns expect Grossman to win, but on the September primary, when voters will cast ballots to choose a Democratic nominee. Republicans will hold their party convention in March, before their own September primary.
“Martha has built a strong, effective, statewide, grass-roots organization, and thus far it has shown great results,” said spokesman Kyle Sullivan.
Strategists for various campaigns expect Coakley to narrow the gap with Grossman this weekend, when some 100 caucuses are scheduled to take place, including in her native North Adams, the Merrimack Valley, and Medford, where she and her husband live now.
Still, a weakness in the caucuses could raise additional questions about Coakley’s ability to connect with the grass roots, a notable soft spot in her unsuccessful 2010 Senate bid.
Her loss to Republican Scott Brown drew national attention and undercut President Obama’s agenda, forging serious, lingering misgivings among party activists about her campaigning and political skills when matched against a strong Republican opponent.
Coakley has run twice for attorney general and once for US Senate, but never focused on the precinct-level voter contact that has become the gold standard of Democratic campaigns in Massachusetts in the years since Governor Deval Patrick’s 2006 victory.
That neither Coakley nor Grossman, both statewide officeholders, can persuade Democratic activists to coalesce decisively behind either of them could have opened a path for one of the lesser-known candidates to emerge as a grass-roots favorite. But none has yet demonstrated the ability to spark the type of excitement evoked by Patrick in 2006 and Elizabeth Warren in 2012.
“I don’t think anybody has yet ignited the passionate feelings that the governor and the senator did, not yet,” said Corinne Wingard, an Agawam delegate who said Patrick’s first campaign “still brings tears to my eyes.”
The candidates hoping to capture an underdog’s momentum are former biopharmaceutical executive Joseph Avellone, former Medicare chief Donald Berwick, and Juliette Kayyem, a one-time homeland security official and Boston Globe op-ed columnist.
Among strategists in the different campaigns, the general consensus was that Kayyem and Berwick were vying for third place in the delegate count, with Avellone in the rear.
Of the 5,500 delegates eligible to participate in the convention, roughly 3,000 will be elected in caucuses. The remainder qualify through their roles within interest groups, as elected officials, or as party luminaries.
At the convention, a candidate needs 15 percent of the delegates, a total of about 750 or 800 delegates, to qualify for the September primary ballot.
This year, the three lesser-known campaigns will probably face an additional challenge because of a change in party rules, in effect for the first time, that could make it more difficult for the three neophyte candidates to reach the September primary.
Under the new rule, candidates vying for a spot on the primary ballot will have just one chance to attain the requisite 15 percent. After the first vote, unless one candidate clears a 50 percent threshold, the surviving candidates can continue to jostle for the 15 percent that will land them on the ballot.
With Grossman and Coakley both expected to clear 15 percent with relative ease, much of the drama at the convention could lie in the battle between the insurgent candidates simply trying to qualify for the ballot. Depending on the percentages Grossman and Coakley grab on the first vote, a fierce battle for a limited share of the remaining vote could ensue.
To prepare a show of strength, or just to scrape by onto the ballot, at the convention, all five candidates have been trying to recruit delegates at the roughly 275 caucuses that have already taken place since their start on Feb. 8.
Often the competition for an elected delegate’s spot can be fierce. In Cambridge, Grossman’s campaign cochairwoman Shanti Fry, a longtime Democratic fund-raiser and activist, arrived at her caucus near Harvard University only to find it overwhelmed by supporters of Kayyem, who has taught at the school.
In Amherst, another liberal academic enclave where Grossman enjoys strong support from state Senate majority leader Stanley C. Rosenberg, who has claimed sufficient support from colleagues to lead the chamber next year, Berwick supporters flooded the room. They effectively blocked would-be Grossman delegates, including Rosenberg’s partner, caucus attendees said.
The caucuses have also opened old intraparty wounds, inflicted during a turbulent decade in Bay State Democratic politics. Supporters of John F. Kerry still smart at Grossman’s 2004 backing of Howard Dean, who tested Kerry for the presidential nomination that year and has endorsed Grossman.
On Beacon Hill, some lawmakers are peeved at Coakley, for what they view as her overly zealous investigation and prosecution of their colleagues for campaign finance and patronage transgressions.
Avellone, meanwhile, has benefited in Worcester County from bitterness rooted in a perception that the Boston political establishment frequently relegates the region to second-class status.