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For Democratic and Republican strategists alike, it's the same nightmare every cycle. In a cold sweat they lay half-away awake, muttering "Perot, Nader, Bull Moose..."

Independents have a reputation for handing elections to the "undeserving" candidate -- depending what side of history you're on. And it's only natural for the losers to cry foul and wish for what might have been. If only!

With the front runners in Massachusetts gubernatorial race flirting with the margin of error, all eyes are on the third party candidate, Independent Tim Cahill. His low, but nonetheless impressive 14% is certainly ruining somebody's day a month from now. If the RGA's ad campaign against Cahill is any indication, it's Charlie Baker who's been losing sleep.

Late last week, Paul Loscocco's revelation that he was part of this year's spoiler drove his defection/return to the GOP. Standing beside Baker, the former Republican state rep-turned-Independent candidate for Lt. Governor framed the core values of the two campaigns as one and the same: not Democrats. But, with Tim Cahill vowing to stay the course it's uncertain how this shock-wave will hit November 2.

Right now, Baker ought to be asking himself several questions: What does all this mean for the working mom in Northampton, the union guy in Quincy and the elderly couple in Weymouth? These folks are Cahill's base. But, after this shake-up, who will stay onboard? It's possible there won't be many.

Cahill's supporters always knew they were in a small club. But Loscocco's endorsement of Baker, along with the resignation of his senior strategist and campaign manager, send a powerful message: Cahill's family has given up on him. Though many of his supporters never expected Cahill to win -- only 28% in fact -- the perception of recent events will drive a new reality, jumping ship. But just who jumps for Baker?

Cahill has worked hard to position himself as an anti-establishment Independent, but underestimating his Democratic ties would be dangerous. Despite efforts to outflank Baker on the right with several issues, some 23% of Cahill voters think of him as a Democrat while only 10% identify him as a Republican -- 59% say Independent. Further, in 2006, nearly half of Cahill's supporters (49%) voted for Governor Patrick compared to just 23% who voted for Mitt Romney's Lt. Governor, Kerry Healey.

When Cahill voters were asked which candidate would be their second choice "if it was apparent that [their] first choice could not win the election," Baker led by an 11 point margin, 46% Baker vs. 35% Patrick, with 12% undecided. However, compared with our survey in May, Baker's lead has narrowed from a wider 16 point margin, 41% Baker vs. 25% Patrick, with 25% undecided. Interestingly, 3% said they would still vote for Cahill, down from 10% in May.

For an Independent candidate, Cahill has wooed an impressive chunk of the electorate. The feeling among the Baker camp has been that these votes belong with them. But, even if every single one of Cahill's supporters abandon him, the net impact for Baker could be as little as two points when all is said and done.

Still trailing Patrick by a hair, Baker should be mindful of keeping his eye on the ball. It's easy to blame the "spoiler," but Cahill has stolen votes from both sides.

Bottom line: whoever makes up Cahill's voter block controls the election right now. However, the diverse make-up of his camp might cancel out the larger impact of their defection as they split both left and right.

 

Follow David Paleologos on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidpaleologos