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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

It’s still not entirely clear to me that Martha Coakley will lose today. As I wrote previously, beyond the poll numbers, which have indisputably trended toward Scott Brown over the past month, almost every intangible–at least the ones the media reported and thus formed the contest’s overall narrative–favor Brown, as did the scheduling and timing of the race.

Still, this is Massachusetts, and this is Teddy Kennedy’s seat. Even though a short, six-week race in February of an off-year cycle is more than the normally disadvantaged, minority Republicans could hope for, that argument could be turned inside out, too: I mean, how much damage can a majority-party standard bearer like Coakley do to herself in such a short time?

Quite a bit, apparently. If she loses today, this may forever be remembered as the “Martha Choakley” race.

Look, Coakley cannot be blamed for the features of the race that are and were beyond her control: The state of the economy; her party’s unified control of state and national goverment; the president’s lagging approval numbers; the fact that she suffered all the burdens of being an “incumbent” with few if any of the actual advantages of incumbency.

Nevertheless, and with specific regard to the candidate and/or campaign effects of this race–the things within Coakley’s control–so much went afoul:

*She allowed Brown to turn the race into a personality, rather than an issue/policy choice. Aside from healthcare and the implicit notion that Coakley would be a stand-in vote for the deceased icon whose seat she would be filling, what was the Coakley “platform”? Unless you are a particularly dynamic or celebrity-like candidates, when you are the nominee of the favored party in the state you want to avoid allowing the race to devolve into a personality contest. In 2006 in Maryland, where I teach, that’s what Michael Steele tried to do against clear statewide favorite Ben Cardin. Cardin won the election, but Steele kept the race to 10 points in a bad Republican year in a state John Kerry won by 14 points just two years earlier in a better Republican cycle.

*She seemed unncertain about how closely to align herself with the Democratic establishment, either in the state and/or nationally. Was using Vicki Kennedy the right choice? Probably, but maybe not; perhaps some voters viewed it as some combination of heavy-handed, maudlin or desperate. Should President Obama (or President Clinton) have been summoned sooner, or maybe not at all because nationalizing the race only going to remind voters that she represented Washington’s in-party? My feeling is that, had she done a better job establishing an independent, policy-based identity after winning the nomination, she could have avoided bringing in the big, national guns; but once she started to tank, there was not enough time to recover and she had not choice but to call for help. So it was the right decision, but a decision that could have been obviated.

*Those gaffes. Conservative talk radio, where Curt Schilling already had a built-in following, loves episodes like the Red Sox blunders Coakley made because they meet the three criteria for a good talk radio story: The details are easily accessible to listeners because there’s not too much complex or heavy policy content and there is a clear, repeatable fact or quote that encapsulates the story; the story can be personalized to an individual or set of individuals, who can then be mocked or demonized; and, finally, the episode fits neatly into a pre-existing frame, in this case the “out-of-touch” character of Democrats/liberals. This was a slow, fat pitch right down the middle for Schilling, Brown and the GOP to whack. (Yes, I know Schilling is a pitcher–I’m a Sox fan!–so the fat-pitch metaphor is backwards in this case, but you get the point.)

All campaign results are a function of three things: 1. The rules and structure of the election system; 2. The political context of the race, which includes everything from political/electoral environment of the moment and the underlying partisan/ideological disposition of the electorate; and 3. Campaign and candidate effects. Brown had the advantage on #1; despite the bad economy and anti-incumbent and anti-Washington and anti-Democratic sentiment, Coakley had the overall advantage on #2, even if it was a smaller advantage than usual for a Democratic candidate in Massachusetts. But again, the first two factors were largely beyond her control.

What Martha Coakley presumably did have control over was her campaign strategy and message–the third and, for her, potentially fatal factor. In any case, we’ll know pretty soon whether she can pull off what will now be regarded, amazingly enough, as a last-minute “upset” win.

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