Steve Lombardo | January 20, 2010
Topics: Martha Coakley , Massachusetts , Scott Brown
Yesterday, Scott Brown became the first Massachusetts Republican elected to the U.S. Senate since Ed Brooke in 1972. Here is what happened:
- This was not all about healthcare reform. Celinda Lake (Coakley's pollster) was right--to a certain extent--about healthcare reform's effect on the race. The bottom started falling out for Coakley when the Senate passed its healthcare bill in mid-December. But that isn't the sole explanation for Coakley's collapse or even the primary reason. A strong candidate with a better message could have withstood the national climate--especially in Massachusetts.
- Candidates matter. Coakley was an awful candidate. As one KSDK reporter in Boston said: "She looked like she would rather eat broken glass than shake hands with a voter." Her "Rose Garden strategy" was a complete failure since it prevented her from engaging an angry electorate.
- Coakley seemed disconnected. The cumulative effect of her gaffes (Schilling, no terrorists in Afghanistan) suggested to voters that she really didn't "get it."
- But that doesn't mean that Democrats shouldn't be worried. Yes, she was a bad candidate and the country is in an anti-incumbent state of mind. That said, we're still talking about Massachusetts here. Obama was elected to bring about change, but voters--starting with the stimulus and continuing with healthcare reform--are anxious and frustrated about the policies that the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress have pursued. It started in NJ and VA: this is the continuation of that trend, and it points to huge problems for Democrats in 2010, especially if they misread the tea leaves and try and push through a healthcare bill that the public has decided it doesn't want.
- The country is still center-right. This election, along with results from New Jersey and Virginia, confirms what we--and plenty of others--said after the 2008 election: this remains a center-right country. Democrats should recognize this as they consider how to move forward on healthcare reform and other controversial issues (cap and trade, etc.).
- The Coakley team completely misread the environment. They ran Coakley as the "heir apparent" to Kennedy. This was an anti-establishment/anti-incumbent election. It was like watching Mark Penn run the failed Hillary Clinton campaign all over again.
- Going negative in the final three-day weekend was a huge tactical mistake by the Coakley campaign. The ads were too harsh and it seemed to have a galvanizing effect for Brown and his campaign. The Coakley team probably looked at internal polling last week and deemed it necessary - but it was still a mistake. Look, it is sometimes acceptable to go negative (use comparative spots) and paint your opponent early in the race, but only after you have laid out a positive foundation for yourself. Coakley never did that, so the ads seemed desperate.
- Which brings us to the biggest problem: the Coakley campaign was asleep at the wheel. They never defined their candidate--or her opponent--in a meaningful and relevant way. They never framed the election in their favor. They never engaged the electorate on issues that mattered. Brown did all of the above. That's why he won.
- Brown was the right candidate at the right time. If this election had taken place in early December or early February, we might have seen a very different result.
- Deval Patrick was also a millstone around Coakley's neck. The Governor is in trouble with Massachusetts voters and it hurt Coakley.
- State Democrats should not have rigged the succession system--twice. We wouldn't even be analyzing why Coakley lost if Democrats hadn't twice changed the Massachusetts rules for filling an empty Senate seat.
- Independents carried the day for Brown. There are simply not enough Republicans in the state to give Brown a 100,000-vote victory. Turnout was high (50%), as 2.25 million voters went to the polls. Without exit polls it is hard to know for sure, but Brown had to win independent voters by a 2 to 1 margin. Chuck Todd is right: Brown, like McDonnell in VA and Obama in 2008, won by winning the middle.
- Obama probably helped keep it closer than it would have been. Our sense is that because this thing really caught fire last Friday and Saturday, the media attention and Obama's visit actually helped stem the Brown surge by energizing some lethargic Democrats. Without it, Brown was trending toward a 9-point victory. That is why on Monday we tweeted a projection of 52% to 47%. Late votes went to Coakley. But there weren't enough of them.
- This should not have been a complete shock. Coakley's highest vote share in pre-election polls was 58% in November. In Massachusetts, she should have started out with 63-65%. She was NEVER in a strong position and was ripe to be picked off if the national mood soured. And it did.
- Massachusetts has never elected a woman as U.S. Senator or Governor. Gender was probably not a major factor but some of Brown's internal polling suggest that voters thought Coakley would be weak on national defense/terror issues. Part of this is due to the administration's poor reaction to the Christmas Day bomber and broader concerns about Obama's performance on national security issues, but gender may also have had a role.
Thanks to Pete Ventimiglia and John Zirinsky for their insights and analysis. Please follow us on Twitter for up-to-the-minute analysis.