Skip to main content
ABC News
The Coakley-Brown Intangibles

I don’t doubt or have anything to add to Nate’s various polling analyses, but as he noted to me by email, there remains a very real chance of non-response bias in these polls. Still, the swirl of last-minute reports about this or that external or internal poll result confirms that we can be certain tomorrow’s results will not be a typical Democratic blowout in Massachusetts.

So what will win or lose this tight race for either Martha Coakley or Republican Scott Brown?

A lot of the chatter surrounds intangibles. And on balance, most of the intangibles in the contest seem to point to a Brown victory:

*Coakley’s fumbles. She’s made two–not one, but two–Red Sox-related gaffes. Though most people who get their political information from Curt Schilling were probably not going to vote for Coakley anyway, calling Schilling a Yankees fan is beyond dumb. And in a short-sprint, low-information race, such moments are ideal fodder for “out-of-touch” narratives. Knowing who the heck Curt Schilling is won’t lower healthcare premiums or pay for grandma’s medication, but geez. One Sox gaffe ought to be enough to shut up a candidate on the subject. (Unless I missed something, John Kerry didn’t compound his “Manny Ortiz” blunder in 2004.) But a second gaffe?

*Brimming conservative confidence. Conservatives are also chirping about big buzz at Brown rallies. And however much liberal nerves are soothed by President Obama’s last-minute visit to the state, his inability to draw crowds like those he did 2008 is causing further crowing.

*The combination of anti-incumbent sentiment and anti-Democratic sentiment. Coakley is not literally an incumbent, of course. But as a stand-in for Teddy Kennedy she actually has it worse than an incumbent because at least endangered incumbents have deep connections to voters, a track record of porkbarreling and constituent service to point to, and related brand name advantages.

*A chops-licking opportunity. As if all the above were not enough to stoke conservative excitement, taking Kennedy’s seat at a moment when the healthcare package is still not passed would for Republicans be like finding both a bike and a pony under the Xmas tree. The fact that voting is taking place in a mid-January special election in an midterm election season helps, too. This is a perfect storm for Massachusetts Republicans.

So…stick a fork in Coakley, she’s done–right? Not so fast.

First of all, any chance Brown had of sneaking up on her is now gone. The closeness of the race is generating high passions–cautious excitement on the right, worry bordering on panic on the left. But in Massachusetts you don’t want high passion and level of attention on both sides if you’re a Republican; you want an asymmetrical level of passion favoring your side. You want to catch the Democrats napping all the way through to Election Day. That almost happened. But Coakley and state Dems–especially the unions–and the White House all awoke before it was over. We’ll see if they rose from their collective slumber too late.

Second, intangibles make for good copy but campaign media narratives tell an incomplete tale. Whatever unions and the Democratic machine are doing, and whether it will be enough or not, their actions are simply less newsworthy than a Sox-Yankees comment, or a Schilling blog post, or whatever Scott Brown did or said at a Tea Party rally.

Third, we’ll finally get a certifiable test of whether the Obama political machine has applicability for Democrats other than himself. As Mother Jones’ Nick Baumann reports, the White House has gone all in with the Organizing for America list Obama built in 2008.

All of which is not to say Coakley will pull this out. I think it would be crazy to make a wager either way. There are too many unknowns. At this point, a Coakley victory would be the “surprise” outcome, which shows how much the tables have turned in the Bay State. But it would not be that surprising. Intangibles matter but they aren’t everything.