Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Massachusetts Senate Race

Summary: A lesson for Democrats in 2010 - 3 Reasons Coakley lost in Massachusetts.

As promised, we’ll spend today analyzing some key reasons why a Republican won Ted Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate yesterday. Essentially, there are a variety of things to look at despite the lack of exit polls.

Campaigning Matters

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth bickering among Democrats over who is to blame for the Coakley loss. Yesterday the Coakley campaign released a memo blaming the DNC and DSCC for not putting enough resources into the race despite receiving polling information that showed she was at risk. A top Democrat then told Politico that Coakley also shared some of the blame.

It’s probably true. Coakley took off time from campaigning during December, giving Brown an opportunity to swing in and secure votes. Her campaign also failed to meet the necessary goals with voter contact in key areas of the state.

The Swing State Project released this map demonstrating how well the Coakley campaign needed to do on a city-by-city (or town-by-town) basis in order to win on Tuesday. They based their benchmarks on the relatively close Senate race in 1996 and the relatively close gubernatorial race in 2002.

As we saw last night, Coakley severely underperformed in reaching these benchmarks. Here’s how the commonwealth went yesterday.

Take the town of Upton for example. According to the Swing State Project, she essentially needed to match Brown 50-50 there to reach her goal in that municipality. She lost 64% - 35% there yesterday. That was the situation across much of middle Massachusetts.

Brown, on the other hand, met his goals. His campaign vigorously contacted voters in this critical part of the state and never assumed victory - even when the polls had him ahead. Democrats in Washington and Massachusetts alike (including the Coakley campaign) expected her to be a shoe-in before the start of the New Year.

Like Hillary Clinton in 2008, Coakley learned the hard way that there’s no such thing as a shoe-in in politics. If you don’t put in the work you won’t get the prize.

All Politics is Local

This was not a local referendum on Barack Obama, on healthcare, or on any other national issue. This was about Massachusetts, and Brown understood that far more than Coakley. Just listen to the way he described his opposition to the healthcare bill in Congress this morning.

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See what he did? He agreed that everyone needs universal healthcare, but said that because Massachusetts practically has it already, a federal bill can only hurt the Bay State residents he now represents.

The majority of voters cast their ballots in their own self-interest - they don’t tend to be altruistic in their electoral decisions. Coakley needed to frame her argument for a national health bill better than she did.

Additionally, many state Democrats in Massachusetts - including Governor Devall Patrick - are not popular at the moment.

Enthusiasm is in the GOP’s Court

Turnout was high yesterday - approximately 55% of the electorate (around 2.2 million voters) is estimated to have cast a ballot. Normally this would be good for a Democrat in Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 3-to-1.

It was not. Between the unpopularity of local Democratic officials, the slow-pace of the Democrat-controlled Congress, and a lackluster Coakley campaign, a large part of the Democratic base was not moved enough to go to the polls yesterday.

But Republicans and Independents sure were. A huge number of GOP voters showed up to the polls on Tuesday, and Independents supported Brown by almost a 2-to-1 margin.

Independents have a long and decisive history of voting against the party in power - especially in off-year elections. There seems to be an aggregate psyche among them to create checks and balances in the federal government. So to some extent, this was not a big surprise. Republican turnout shouldn’t have been either, as they are fighting the power, and thus more enthusiastic to vote out Democrats.

The extent of these trends, however, was surprising.

This should be the biggest red flag for Democrats in 2010. There is no getting around the fact that high GOP enthusiasm and low Democratic enthusiasm is going to hinder a lot of Democratic campaigns this year. If there is anything to be concerned about, this is it.

That’s not to say that defeat is inevitable. Strong and smart campaigning can limit the losses Democrats will face this year. Hopefully for Democrats, our candidates can learn the important lessons from last night’s results in Massachusetts.

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