Dispirited Democrats doomed Coakley campaign



By last Tuesday night, it was hardly a serious shock that little-known State Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, had been elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Massachusetts’ “liberal lion”, Ted Kennedy. In the last weeks of the campaign to replace him, Democratic Party officials and affiliates groups had joined together to pour money – and ads – into the Bay State. Their effort was intended to save the flagging candidacy of state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose massive lead had evaporated in the span of mere weeks. Even a campaign rally presided over by none other than President Barack Obama ’91 failed to stem the tide.

The question on the morning after Brown’s come-behind win – which made him the first Republican Senator elected from the state in nearly four decades – was why voters in the traditional Democratic bastion of Massachusetts turned to a member of the GOP. Multiple theories were offered in the aftermath. But new data indicate that an energized Republican base – and a dispirited Democratic one that largely stayed away from the polls – contributed significantly to the election’s outcome.

The quality of Coakley’s campaign was chief among reasons given for her loss. The Attorney General had taken her lead for granted in the weeks leading up to the general election, leaving for a vacation as her lead in the polls evaporated and even deriding tested campaign tactics – like greeting voters in the cold after hockey games. Brown, meanwhile, capitalized on an everyman image (embodied in his truck, which became a campaign staple) and an indefatigable – if seemingly quixotic – effort to meet and greet voters.

But the candidates themselves were not the only heavily-invested participants in the race: the efforts of out-of-state groups played a major role. The special election’s characteristics – it was held in the middle of winter, in a state where the Democrats believed they were assured victory – put it on the map of groups who believed it could be ripe for a Republican insurgency. Members of the “Tea Party” movement and other right wing organizations gave millions to the Brown effort, and their volunteers poured into the state.

Their contributions are borne out in the totals spent by each candidate – Brown’s campaign, fueled by direct contributors, spent $8.7 million to Coakley’s $5.1. The difference was only made up by spending from the Democratic Party, which did not jump in until late in the game. Despite Brown’s claims that he was running against the “machine” candidate, the picture that has emerged of his effort is of a well-oiled conservative machine able to turn out its base and use its considerable resources to turn independents slighted by the indifference of the Coakley campaign.

Another theory posits that Brown’s victory was driven by populist anger. Furious that the Democratic Party and President Obama had failed to reign in Wall Street, voters had lashed out, choosing, paradoxically, the representative of a party pledged to do even less to regulate the financial sector than his opponent. This notion seems to assume that Massachusetts voters acted out of blind rage or misinformation, but veteran pollsters consistently rate Massachusetts residents among the most informed on national issues.

Were Massachusetts voters simply more conservative than assumed, just waiting to lash out at the state’s Democratic establishment after the death of one of the popular Senator Kennedy? In one poll, voters surveyed after the election were found to rate President Obama’s job performance at only 40%, a 20% drop from only two months before. Nate Silver, the fivethirtyeight.com poll aggregator, found such a drastic drop unlikely. Did some left wing voters abandon support for Obama? Or was turnout skewed? A Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll conducted after the election indicated continuing support for Obama (at 60% of voters and nonvoters surveyed). The evolving effort to reform health care received less support – only about half those surveyed supported it, despite strong support for Massachusetts’ universal coverage.

Turnout across the state was unusually high for a special election, at 54% of the electorate, compared to around 30% during the Senate primary. But it was especially high in outer suburbs that went heavily for Brown. Coakley saw high totals in urban areas that traditionally vote for Democrats – including Boston, Worcester, and Lowell. But in all these areas, she was handicapped by considerably lower turnout.

The overall message appears to be that the Democratic base is discontented – but not necessarily with Obama. Beyond Coakley’s lackluster candidacy, health care reform was not overwhelmingly popular. Massachusetts Democrats do not tend to be small minded – the fact that Massachusetts is already covered by a universal health care plan is unlikely to have motivated their discontent. But dissatisfaction with the performance in the party that has been overwhelmingly in power surely played some role in keeping voters away from the polls in one of the state’s most furiously contested elections.

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