It was no secret to Massachusetts Democrats that Martha Coakley, who lost Tuesday’s gubernatorial election after a lackluster race, struggled to articulate an agenda for the state. Partly because of bitter memories of her shocking defeat in a Senate special election in 2010 and partly due to concerns about her flimsy platform this year, most Democrats backed one of her opponents at the party’s convention, and then again in the party primary in September. Yet Coakley still won the party’s nod.
The rules governing party nominations routinely deprive the public of a wide range of choices when the time comes to vote. This time, they failed the Democratic Party, too. Tuesday’s victory by Republican Charlie Baker ought to wake Democrats up to the need to make primaries more inclusive, more reflective of voter preference, and early enough to allow full-fledged general election campaigns.
Earlier this year, five candidates — Coakley, Treasurer Steve Grossman, health care expert Don Berwick, businessman Joe Avellone, and former Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem — were seeking the Democratic nomination. But they needed to clear an unnecessary hurdle just to get on the ballot: rules required them to garner support from at least 15 percent of delegates to the Democratic convention. That’s an undemocratic step that some other states don’t have; in Rhode Island, for instance, a candidate who gathers enough signatures gets on a primary ballot whether the party likes it or not. In this case, the rule prevented Kayyem and Avellone from even appearing as options in the primary.
Then, in the three-way primary election that ensued, Coakley won with only 42 percent of the vote, as Berwick and Grossman split the rest. Nomination systems don’t have to work that way. To avoid just such a scenario, some states allow runoff voting in party primaries. For instance, in Mississippi’s hotly contested Republican Senate primary this year, Tea Party extremist Chris McDaniel came out ahead in a three-way race. Under the Massachusetts rules, that would have made him the party’s nominee. Instead, when the top two candidates went to a runoff, McDaniel lost to Thad Cochran.
Finally, the late date of the primary hurt Coakley and the Democrats. She had less than three months to consolidate support. The calendar doesn’t just give candidates a disadvantage: it means voters have less time to make their decisions. Other states work differently: Virginia, for instance, holds its primary in June.
It’s impossible to know how this year’s gubernatorial election might have shaped up under a different set of rules. Baker would have been a strong opponent for any Democratic nominee. But there’s no escaping the fact that a combination of circumstances gave Democrats a candidate favored by a relatively small percentage of the party’s own supporters, and then gave her little time to improve. It would take changes to both state law and party procedures to reform the nominating process. Losing the election on Tuesday ought to provide the Democrats with the nudge they need to get started.