8 days have passed since the Massachusetts special election, and there are still as many questions as to what exactly happened that made one of the Democratic states in the country sent a Republican to the Senate. Many explanations we have been hearing concern national factors (Washington Democrats’ unpopularity, health-care reform); others concern Martha Coakley’s hapless campaign. To make sense of these confusing explanations, a friend who volunteered for Coakley in the campaign’s final week wrote a little essay based on what he saw on the ground.
What exactly went wrong with Democrats’ efforts? Where they really so unprepared, and why did they fail to catch up once they did awaken to the fact that this was a competitive race? His observations document the extent of Coakley’s unpreparedness - the lack of information about Brown, the amateurish nature of the ground game (one office in Boston, really?) - and also confirm what we have been seeing for the past few months: a depressed liberal base is sure to mean trouble for the party come November. So the rest of this post is written by Hugh Baran:
1. Little attention to issues voters are intimately concerned with
What drives people to vote and be engaged in the democratic process are their own issues. Whether or not someone cares about the outcome of an election has more to do with his or her sense of how their daily life is affected by the outcome than anything else. The Coakley campaign was ultimately unable to make a strong case to its potential voters that a Scott Brown victory would have a direct and detrimental impact on their daily lives.
These are generally two approaches campaigns can take - fear vs. hope. To me, the way you bring low-income voters who have been traditionally shafted by public policy out to the polls is by inspiring hope that their lives can change around a clear set of concrete issues. Coakley’s campaign was instead mired in vagaries. A key talking point of the final weekend was that Coakley would “fight for working families” - but what did that mean to anyone, concretely? Whenever I asked people what their message about that was, nobody knew. Occasionally people talked about her support of the new banking taxes, about fighting for Main St vs Wall St, but it was hollow. This kind of messaging is fundamentally rooted in an idea that voters are stupid, that you can’t actually address or draw them out around concrete issues because it’s just too complicated. Unless campaigns treat working people seriously, as individuals who are intimately aware of the issues they’re facing in their daily lives, they’re doomed to fail.
The flip side of all of this is that the campaign lacked solid information about Scott Brown. What I realized in the course of talking to activists throughout the final weekend is that traditional non-partisan organizations that get involved in electoral politics via issue guides and assessments via questionnaires, fora, etc did absolutely none of that work. This is particularly true of groups that work on progressive issues. Thus there was no ability for Martha Coakley’s campaigns - or volunteers - to cite information on Brown from those questionnaires, or for independent nonpartisan issue sources to give Coakley credibility in attacking Brown on his right-wing views. Thus, the attacks on Brown came across as baseless and rooted in little more than a desperate desire to win.
2. The importance of activist engagement
Not only were progressive organizations not engaged on an issues-level, but progressive activists were simply not engaged. They were, on the one hand, caught deeply off guard. Almost everybody believed the real race was in the primary, particularly for progressives.
On the other hand, progressive activists also hardly came out of the woodwork once it became clear that Coakley was in trouble. In a city like Boston with such a strongly developed progressive apparatus, activists were hard to come by at the Coakley field office. That only one field office was used for all of Boston was another sign of how low-energy people were.
I would argue that this was the real impact of national politics on the race. Progressives have been deeply disheartened about the Obama agenda (or lack thereof) and particularly about the failure of health-care reform to include a public option. Indeed, I found myself physically unable most of the time to talk about the health-care vote as one of Coakley’s virtues, and I have no doubt many others did as well. Coakley didn’t do the hard work of convincing Capuano activists to rally behind her - it’s not as though they didn’t vote for her, but what she needed was an organization - but at the end of the day, how are you to build an organization if activists don’t want to be part of one?
3. An unprepared campaign with a bad field strategy
Bad campaigns have bad strategy. We can argue that there are races that just have underlying dynamics, that move one way or another because of voting trends, national politics, or other factors, but I think that’s a hard statement to make here. Martha Coakley’s campaign ultimately just did not have the right strategy to win. The second it became clear several weeks ago, when the first competitive polling appeared, that this race had become nationalized, it should have prompted a dramatic re-thinking of field strategy. Instead, Coakley’s campaign (and our canvasses throughout Election weekend) focused almost exclusively on regular, prime Democratic voters. Yet once this went from being a sleeper election to a heated national race, Democrats should have expanded the target group to include more first-time Obama voters, particularly in low-income communities of color in Boston.
While OFA did organize millions of phone calls from around the country to these groups of voters, what was ultimately needed was an intense door-knocking focus with an issue-based ask. Such a strategy might have emerged had progressives with long-time experience in these communities been engaged in Coakley’s campaign at higher levels. Even on Election Day, when OFA had taken over the field operation from the campaign, neighborhoods with low-turnout Obama voters were not a priority focus for the campaign - even though it was clear that every such voter who was turned out would be a Coakley voter. Volunteer resources were clearly an issue, but in that case the campaign should have anticipated this and spent some money on paid canvassing. It is not at all hard to imagine another 100,000 votes coming out of Boston.