A Massachusetts Miracle?

Tomorrow marks the special election for senate in Massachusetts. After a rather low-key primary, Martha Coakley handily won the Democratic primary. Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, essential went unnoticed until recent polls showed him narrowing Coakley’s once 20-30% margin to single digits. These trends have continued and any Coakley lead in the polls has completely evaporated. in fact, nearly all recent polls have Brown ahead by a few points (a key piece of data will be Rasmusssen’s poll later today).

What happened?

First of all, Coakley has been a decidedly unexciting candidate. The near absence of a primary battle and the fact that she’s been seen as taking the seat for granted have significantly hurt her ability to define herself in any meaningful way. Brown, in contrast, has painted himself as the anti-establishment candidate – indeed, it looks like he’s capturing a decent portion of Obama voters, who were no doubt anti-establishment in ’08. While Coakley’s recent ads have focused on trying to attack Brown, Brown has sent out of positive message, showing him traveling around Boston, advocating “more jobs and lower taxes.” Whether Brown has any strategy to deliver on this is somewhat immaterial at this point – the key is that it’s a message that resonates strongly when unemployment is high and after the sales tax in Massachusetts just went up.

It’s also been helped that most people really have a very limited notion of what “ObamaCare” represents. This is the administration’s problem: unless people have a clear message to hear, the opposition can easily step in to sow enough doubt to raise concerns – and by “opposition”, I mean both those who want more sweeping change (the progressive wing of the Democratic party) and those who prefer more restricted changes (Republicans). Polls seem to show there is overall support for the bills in Massachusetts, but the support is soft, and health care reform support is unlikely to drum up significant Democratic turnout. Brown strategy has also taken advantage of the largely unpopular negotiations within the Democratic party (e.g. with Senator Bill Nelson), arguing that he supports reform, but wants discussions brought out into the open.

While the outcome of this election remains unclear, I think there’s a greater than 50% chance that Brown will pull this out. What the Democrats do with both the health care bill and future bills with a sub-supermajority senate will determine how they perform in the 2010 elections. The supermajority may, in retrospect, turn out to be one of the worst things to happen to the Democrats in a long time.

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