Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lessons From the U.S. Senate Special Election

Now that State Senator Scott Brown has defeated Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election for the U.S. Senate seat by a margin of around six percentage points, it's time for me to join the chorus of armchair politicos to draw lessons learned from the election.

Base Elections are the Exception, Not the Rule. Politicos like to point to Karl Rove's electorate base strategy in 2004 as the model for an effective presidential campaign, but that strategy worked well because so many states had anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments on their ballots that year. President George W. Bush won running towards the middle in 2000; Senator John McCain lost running towards the right in 2008; while now-President Barack Obama in 2008 had a platform full of progressive policies, in many ways he won in the middle (52-44% of moderates) using conciliatory language and vows of bipartisanship.

If you look at the mailings and phone calls in this campaign, it is plainly obvious that Coakley was contacting pretty much only Democratic voters while Brown was going for unenrolled (independent) voters. It is absolutely amazing how stark the difference was. Coakley seemed to make no attempt to contact unenrolled voters -- who make up more than 50% of registered voters -- while Brown did so repeatedly. Polls in the week before the election showed Brown winning unenrolled voters by 2:1 or 3:1 margins.

The 2004 presidential election was an outlier. Independent voters continue to be where close elections are won or lost -- even in liberal Massachusetts.

The Third Maxim of Politics.
The first maxim of politics is that All Politics Are Local. The second maxim is that You Have to Ask People For Their Vote.

Now we have learned the third maxim: You Have to Shake People's Hands. Not hide away in your campaign office or substitute meetings with members of town school committees -- even though they are elected officials. Shake people's hands; don't ever say that it isn't important to do so. And then shake some more hands.

Massachusetts Corollary #1: Sox with an "x," tot "cks". Not only shake people's hands, but don't make fun of people who shake voters' hands outside Fenway Park -- or mock Red Sox legends like Curt Schilling. That'll kill you with the crowd that is looking for any reason to say that you're Out Of Touch.

Establishment Candidacies Are Bad News In This Political Climate. Coakley ran a campaign that was amazingly similar to then-Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007-8: the establishment candidate whose election is inevitable. Until that inevitability hits a big pothole, that is. Even though Clinton wrapped up lots of Democratic superdelegates early in the primary and caucus season, then-Senator Barack Obama eventually caught up with her on that score; meanwhile, Obama had churned out substantially more elected delegates.

You don't need to lock up the support of every single member of a school committee, board of selectmen, water district board, union organizing committee, or ward committee. There are far more voters out there than there are selectmen. Meet some ordinary voters, shake their hands, and ask them for their vote.

Don't Make Easy Assumptions: They Can Be Wrong. People assumed Coakley, as the woman in the race, had the women's vote wrapped up. But at least one poll in the past week broke down the numbers and showed she was surprisingly weak among women voters. I wouldn't be surprised if that were true back in the December 2009 primary, too. Do the Capuano, Khazei, or Pagliuca campaigns have polling to share on this point?

Coakley's Future In Doubt. Coakley's amateurish campaign immediately makes her appear vulnerable this fall -- from either a Republican or a Democratic challenger. Coakley is now perceived as such a weakened candidate for state-wide office that a challenger is inevitable.

I will venture a bit close to the precipice and make a bolder prediction: Democratic Party leaders in Massachusetts will quietly pull Coakley aside and suggest that she not run again for attorney general. Those leaders talking to Coakley will not be the leadership in the state legislature, however, since they are all scared to death that Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin will run for Attorney General -- and get subpoena power. They would rather see a no-name Republican as attorney general than Galvin.

I predict that Galvin moves forward with a run for the seat and scares Coakley into not running for re-election -- just like 2002 when Mitt Romney drove then-Acting Governor Jane Swift out of the race for governor.


nme said...

Excellent analysis. Wish you would write more.

Nan Evans

Suzanne said...

I would be happy to vote for Galvin over Coakley for AG. In fact, I look forward to the opportunity to vote against Coakley, since my vote for her yesterday didn't amount to much.