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Wicked Awesome Thoughts on Massachusetts Special Election

Rasmussen is supposed to have a poll out tomorrow (Tuesday) on the Massachusetts Senate Special Election, which will take place on the 19th. There’s been some speculation, mostly from Republican blogs but also from some Democratic analysts, that the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, might have a chance, which would potentially wreck the Democrats’ chances to pass health care reform.

I’ll be curious to see what Rasmussen and the other pollsters (PPP? Suffolk?) have to say, and bears remembering that special elections are highly unpredictable affairs. But I’d be somewhat surprised if the election turns out to be especially competitive. The thing is, this race has been polled a couple of times; Suffolk conducted a poll of the Coakley versus Brown matchup in November, and had Coakley ahead by 31 points. And WNEC (that’s a college, not a radio station) conducted a poll of likely voters in October and had Coakley ahead by 26.

Now, Brown’s name recognition has improved since then, so odds are that the final margin will be significantly closer. But in both polls, Coakley was already comfortably over 50 percent — in fact, she was at 58 percent in both of them. So even if virtually all of the undecideds break toward Brown and the turnout is worse for Democrats than what the pollsters are anticipating, she should have a fair amount of cushion.

The WNEC poll, incidentally, found that 73 percent of Democrats considered themselves highly very likely to vote, versus 78 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of independents. Based on current party registration statistics, that would make the projected electorate 39 percent Democrat, 13 percent Republican and 48 percent independent; based on 2008 exit polling results instead, the turnout would be 45 D, 19 R and 39 indie. With demographics like that, and the fact that independents in Massachusetts tend to lean Democratic, Coakley would have to be an exceptionally poor candidate to lose the race or Brown an exceptionally strong one, and neither of those things are true.

Now, maybe the Republican enthusiasm advantage is a little bit larger than what WNEC shows. But I’m suspicious of comparisons with, for instance, Virginia; the reason the turnout swung so much there is partly because Virginia has a lot of swing voters. The turnout demographics didn’t change all that much in New Jersey, on the other hand; Jon Corzine lost there because he was a crappy governor. And if New Jersey is less swingy than Virginia, Massachusetts is way less swingy than New Jersey. Also, turnout was pretty decent in the special primary, with 664,195 people voting in the Democratic race versus 162,706 in the Republican one, although the Democratic race was considerably more competitive.

But the basic problem for Brown is — what happens if Rasmussen or whomever shows the race close and the national parties start throwing some money into the contest? Then you have Democrats playing the Teddy Card and Republicans nationalizing the race and talking about killing a bill that Kennedy fought his whole life for; that’s not a winning formula in Massachusetts.

Or to put it another way: if perception has swung so much against the Democrats that they can’t win a referendum on Teddy Kennedy’s health care bill in Massachusetts, perhaps Brown would be doing them a favor by killing the thing.

Edit/PS. I tend to agree with the Republican bloggers to this extent — there’s more upside than downside in contesting the race, particularly if one acknowledges that the upside consists mostly of making the race close enough to win the GOP a couple of news cycles. But it’s a tricky course to navigate because, unless I’m way misreading the landscape, the teabagger message won’t play well there. In other words, Brown could use Michael Steele’s money, but almost certainly not his message.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.