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Why Brown Won

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.

 

Comments
Gary Kilbride:

Your final point rightfully slots much higher. In a negative situational terrain I never would have nominated a woman. A majority of my political discussions are spur of the moment with moderate to right wing guys. They follow politics only at the hot topic issues but they do vote. I'm always stunned at their runaway scorn toward female candidates, particularly on national security concerns. The weakness is assumed, solely on gender, not based on anything from the campaign or resume. I notice the same theme on sports websites that have a political forum.

In 2006, even in a pro-Democratic landscape, I remember many toss up House races that Democrats surprisingly lost, and several post election studies pointed to a shared variable; the nominee was female. Iraq was the smoldering topic.

For one thing, female candidates apparently are more prone to loss of benefit of a doubt if they gaffe late in a race. I'm reminded of Patricia Madrid's debate flop against Heather Wilson in NM-1 in 2006. I didn't follow the Coakley race closely and assumed she would hold on narrowly until Sunday night, when I did a bit of research and found the Curt Shilling and Fenway Park quotes. Bye bye. I have relatives in Connecticut and visit every summer. Every conversation either starts with the Red Sox or winds its way there. The women follow as closely as the men.

In 2010, and in a state like Massachusetts, I can almost understand giving no weight to gender as a selection criteria. Democrats are coming off two highly successful cycles and that promotes cockiness and lack of attention to little details, a fear of forfeiting a vital point or two here and there. I still get a chuckle out of Obama handlers who think they brainstormed the 2008 outcome, instead of accepting that a sustained Category 3 gust would have carried any Democrat across the line. As Steve Lombardo pointed out, it's still a center right nation, revealed by 21% liberals and 33% conservatives in every survey. Throughout 2008 I was numbed by what the margin would have been in reverse, if a Democratic president and Democratic administration had been as runaway inept as Bush and company for 3-6 years. I'd peg the margin as no less than 12 points, if Republicans had fielded a charismatic candidate like Obama and Democrats stuck with a McCain oldie. And 12 is probably conservative.

It doesn't take as much or as long for the tide to turn against Democrats. Tuesday night was another reminder.

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GARY WAGNER:

Some valid points - some miss completely. This didn't start in NJ and VA in November. This started in April with the ramp-up of the tea party movement. The democrats have drastically misunderstood this movement. Maybe they believe their vicious attacks that the "tea baggers" are just a bunch of radical redneck racists who are having a coniption fit about having a black president.

There is more anger toward the federal government out here in the real world than I have seen since the race riots of the 60's. If the democrats put their heads in the sand, blame this loss on a single bad candidate, racists and rednecks, and George Bush there will be the biggest turnover in congress in 2010 in history. In fact, I think people will begin to take to the streets and march on Washington if they don't change their corrupt, back-door, pork barrel ways.

This movement is real. If the democrats keep mocking and demonizing people it will only grow stronger.

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Polaris:

I agree with Gary. Why did Brown win? Simply put, he got more votes than Coakley and did so in a state where her party had massive structural advantages.

How could this happen? I happened because the democratic party both in DC and around the country (and esp in Mass) is acting as though the voter doesn't matter. We hear it even today from Obama on down as to what the voters "really" want and "really" need rather than listening to the electorate.

Until Obama and the rest of his party stops telling us what is "good" for us or how we should "feel" and starts listening to the ordinary voter, 2010 and 2012 are going to be very ugly years for the Democrats indeed....and already in congress the GOP has a strong structural advantage in the 2012 races.

In short, Obama needs to pull a Clinton to save his presidency. I think the chances of that happening are virtually nil. Obama has shown himself this last year to be what anyone that did any research at all on him expected him to be, i.e. a self-absorbed academic idealogue who has never had to compromise on anything, nor shows any desire to do so. Given that, I predict baring a Saul of Taursis moment for the president, that Obama will go down as the worst president since Carter (and perhaps even worse than that).

-Polaris

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