Archive for the 'MA-Sen' Category

A Massachusetts post-mortem

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.

Democrats’ nightmare

Last night, Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat, lost the Senate seat Teddy Kennedy had held for more than four decades and surrendered the 60-seat majority they had built so painstakingly. This extraordinary upset, which has few if any rivals among the past 2 decades, emboldens Republicans to push for still-greater gains in 2010 and deals a terrible blow to Democrats’ agenda, starting with the health-care bill that just two weeks seemed certain to adopted.

Even with that introduction, I fear I am not doing justice to the magnitude of what happened last night. After all, as we entered January, Scott Brown would have been considered lucky to get within 10% of Martha Coakley but a few voices started wondering whether little-known state Senator Scott Brown could pull off a victory; I confess I did not awake to the possibility until just two weeks ago. (That might sound late but it’s nevertheless earlier than the time at which Coakley recognized the danger she was facing.) Fast forward 15 days, and Brown pulled off a jaw-dropping 4,8% victory.

Democrats are already consumed by the blame game

In the days leading up to the election, prominent figures like Barney Frank and as many anonymous D.C. aides was there are journalists were blasting Coakley’s hapless campaign; yesterday, in the middle of Election Day, the Attorney General’s camp fired back with a memo accusing national Democrats of failing to engage and being responsible for the tough environment that has contributed to her decline. Putting aside that it is telling of the campaign’s disorganization that a top Coakley staffer found the time on Election Day to write such a lengthy postmortem, we can surely all agree that everyone is right here: such an unlikely even can only be explained by a perfect storm of factors.

The first is the Democratic nominee. Coakley ran a strong primary campaign, but she paid no attention to the general election. It’s one thing for observers like myself to declare her the heavy favorite, it’s another for the candidate to decide that she does not have to put in any work to secure her first victory in a federal race. She took a long vacation, and her campaign did not go up on TV until the final 10 days of the campaign - after her opponent started airing his third ad. As such, Brown had ample time to introduce himself to voters in a positive light. By the time Democrats woke up, it was much too late: the Republican’s favorability rating was impressively high, and a sudden blitzkrieg of negative advertisement cannot be expected to change one month’s worth of good will.

And it’s not like Coakley can blame her lack of a campaign on financial woes: as of December 31st, Coakley had more than $1 million in the bank. Furthermore, most of her failures have nothing to do with fundraising: Not only did she come across as stiff and conventional (it’s not like she seemed a particularly original and intriguing candidate back during the primary campaign), but numerous news stories reported that she scoffed at the idea of holding events and shaking hands. As of Monday, Coakley had only held 19 events since her primary victory - that’s less than one every two days!

(It’s hard to imagine Rep. Capuano, the energetic champion of progressive causes, would have given the GOP such an opening - a thought that sure to haunt Democrats so much over the next 3 years that Capuano has to be considered the front-runner to win the Senate nomination in 2012 if he wants to challenge Brown.)

Brown, meanwhile, mounted an unexpectedly formidable campaign. That Democrats should never have allowed that to matter doesn’t change the fact that not all Republicans could have pulled off what the state Senator did: He managed to navigate the GOP’s ideological divide with a talent that other Republicans will want to imitate, simultaneously presenting himself as an “independent” supportive of abortion rights and getting Tea Partiers/national conservatives to embrace him. His populist message (his attempts to channel voters’ anger over the economic crisis, his effective self-portrayal as a “regular guy” who rides a pick-up truck) clearly resonated with voters.

But in a state like Massachusetts, even the worst Democratic candidates shouldn’t lose against the best Republican ones - and let’s not forget that Coakley is, after all, the sitting Attorney General while Brown had no statewide profile as of 5 months ago. Last night’s results obviously comes in the context of a tough environment for Democrats, and despite the White House’s best efforts to put all of the blame on Coakley’s failures, there is no question that national politics played a great role in yesterday’s upset.

Had a Senate special election been held in Mississippi or Louisiana in the spring of 2008, Democrats might very well have won it. They did, after all, win House races in those two states in districts that were arguably more Republican than Massachusetts is Democratic. 18 months later, the White House has changed hands and so has the entire political landscape. Many voters who typically Democratic, starting with blue-collar workers, either cast a ballot for Brown (how many of these had ever cast a ballot for a Republican in a federal race?) or did not vote (turnout was higher than would be expected in a special election, but the motivation gap was certainly there since Boston’s turnout was lower than in its suburbs). This does speak to Washington Democrats’ unpopularity: It took them a year to squander voters’ good-will.

Democrats divided

There will be a lot of recriminations among Democrats as to what accounts for this. The party’s right-wing, starting with Claire McCaskill and Evan Bayh, have already made it clear they blame progressives. Bayh, for instance, stated that Coakley’s defeat is due to the party being taken over by “the furthest left elements;” McCaskill declared that Democrats were taking their agenda “too far, too fast.”

Yet, to the extent that this perception exists, it is in great part due to those Democrats who spend much of their time denouncing liberals’ control over the party when they are far more powerful themselves. Take health-care: A third of House Democrats are co-sponsors of a single-payer bill, which did not even factor in the discussion. In fact, after losing on almost every intraparty fight on which they engaged this fall, progressives were ready to pass a public option-less bill that instituted new restrictions on abortion funding - a bill that closely resembles the health-care plan Mitt Romney supported in Massachusetts. Bayh, McCaskill and their allies have long ago buried most of liberals’ other priorities, from cap-and-trade to EFCA. Looking back at 2009, I have trouble seeing what the left might have to celebrate.

The perception that “the furthest left elements” of the Democratic party have too much influence in Washington has a lot to do with Bayh and Lieberman saying it is so against much of the available evidence; the flawed perception that the health-care bill’s is a socialist’s dream has much to do with those Democrats who spent months denouncing it as radical legislation before voting for it. Of course, the Nelsons and Bayhs are only hurting themselves: As long as they were open to the possibility of supporting the bill, why spend months tearing it down first? That contributed to making the legislation so unpopular that Lincoln is more vulnerable than she would be otherwise, Bayh is potentially vulnerable to a GOP challenge and Nelson’s approval rating has dipped so low the GOP cannot wait for 2012.

Democrats’ greatest fault in 2009 was a fundamental lack of response to voters’ desire to see corporations, banks or executives punished for their responsibility in the economic crisis. Instead of rising up to the challenge of representing the working-class, the White House gave Larry Summers and his ideological allies the keys to the country’s economy, framed the health-care debate as a collaboration with insurance and drug companies and all but renounced any confrontation with the financial sector. (In October 2008, who would have thought that in January 2010 Wall Street firms would have this little to complain about?) In this context, is it surprising that the hard-right has been able to seize the populist mantle, convince independents and blue-collar voters that the Tea Party is capable to channel their anger?

In short, my view is not just that cautious governance is depressing the liberal base - that alone cannot explain the voting shifts we have been seeing - but rather that it has pushed working-class voters (who are not necessarily liberal) away and has allowed Tea Party populism to prosper.

Can health-care survive?

All of these debates will come to an immediate head over the question of what should be done with health-care reform. The loss of a 60-seat majority will affect Democrats all year, and Brown’s victory will surely be a source of frustration for the party in every roll call that will be taken until January 2013, but nowhere will it be more consequential than on the health-care bill. Congressional Democrats have spent much of the past 8 months focusing on this issue, and when the Senate finally passed its version of the legislation it looked all but certain that a bill would land on the president’s desk within 6 weeks. Brown’s victory single-handedly changes the equation. It is now an open question as to whether any health-care bill will pass Congress this year.

The problem isn’t so much that Republicans now have 41 votes. (Democrats still have majorities which which to pass a conference report since it is unlikely Brown can be seated until January 29th at the earliest, and since congressional leadership has already sent large parts of the final bill to the CBO for scoring, that might be enough of a window for the same 60 senators who passed the bill in December to push it through again. Legislation could also be adopted if the House, in which the Democratic majority is obviously not affected by Brown’s victory, simply passes the Senate bill unchanged.)

If health-care reform fails it will be due to Democrats backing away. Centrists want a bill that can win Republican support; House liberals are categorically refusing to pass the Senate bill as is, since many of the complaints they had about the exchange design, subsidy levels and funding mechanisms were supposed to be fixed in conference; and Democrats across the ideological spectrum are saying they are uncomfortable with pushing anything through the Senate before Brown is seated. While Virginia’s moderate Senator Jim Webb was the first to call for a suspension of any health-care vote, liberal leader Barney Frank also said that the bill could not be passed without taking into account Massachusetts voters.

(Update: Yes, Democrats weren’t even supposed to have 60 votes until Specter switched parties; yes, they were preparing to charge ahead with health-care reform even before MA Dems changed state law to allow Paul Kirk to replace Kennedy. As such, I agree with Ezra Klein’s many posts that argue that covering the loss of a 60th seat as if the Democrats have lost control of the Senate is silly - and revealing of the institution’s dysfunctions. Yet, the problem here is that they are losing a seat after completing the debate: At this point, they can hardly turn to Snowe or Collins in the hope they can be convinced to back the reform; and turning to reconciliation at this late point would waste them precious weeks. Had they known in September they would have to deal with 59 votes, they would have proceeded differently from the get go.)

One option is for the House to adopt the Senate bill while at the same time passing a reconciliation resolution implementing some of the changes that the conference committee was expected to implement, for instance a change to the subsidy levels and the establishment of national exchanges; all the Senate would then have to do is adopt the small reconciliation bill with only 50 votes. While unions seem to be endorsing this approach, House liberals are signaling they are not because they do not trust the Senate would actually follow through on the “fix”.

Scrapping the bill and starting everything over through reconciliation thus appears the only option left on the table, though it would face major obstacles. Congress would spend many more months focused on health-care, Pelosi would still not be certain of a majority and many of the bill’s most emblematic reforms (for instance a ban on pre-existing conditions) would have to be stripped since they do not affect the budget. Yet, health-care proponents got an unexpected bit of good news today: Budget Committee Chair Senator Kent Conrad, who I would have expected to side with Evan Bayh, signaled he was “cautiously” open to using reconciliation. [Update: Ben Nelson issues a statement strongly hinting that he'll back Democratic leadership's decision because "we should not give up."]

Democrats would be taking a big political risk if they push through health-care reform under the current circumstances, especially if they take the reconciliation route. But I firmly believe the electoral consequences would be even more disastrous if no legislation passes. As the 1994 midterms showed, that would only result to Democratic incumbents seeking re-election with nothing to actually run on; it would depress liberals while doing nothing to dampen conservative enthusiasm, quite the contrary; and it would confirm to voters that the health-care bill was a radical piece of legislation and that every congressman who voted for it should be punished.

Indeed, the bottom line is that all Democratic senators and the vast majority of Democratic House members have already voted in favor of health-care reform. Dropping the legislation now would do nothing to shield them from attacks, but it would deprive them of any means to fight back.

Emboldened Republicans could seek to expand the map further

If we can win in Massachusetts, Republicans are now telling themselves, we can win everywhere. That logic is no doubt limited (not all Democrats will take a one-month break before the election, for one; the GOP saved quite many endangered seats in 2008, second), but there is no doubt that Democrats are caught in a vicious cycle. The more Republicans grow confident that they will score huge gains in November, the better the landscape will look.

Indeed, Brown’s triumph could help the GOP pull off many more recruitment coups, as credible Republicans in districts that the GOP wouldn’t ordinarily think of contesting will now probably take a look at jumping in. More Democratic congressmen could call it quits (there is little doubt that Byron Dorgan and Vic Snyder were scared off by the prospect of unexpectedly tough re-election races); Democratic leaders were reportedly calling members last night to ensure there wouldn’t be a panic-induced wave of retirements following the Massachusetts results; and the more money will flow the GOP’s way.

While we have paid a lot of attention to the NRCC’s efforts to expand the House map, the NRSC could be emboldened by its Massachusetts pick-up. They have already mounted top-tier campaigns in 7 seats held by Democrats (NV, AR, ND, DE, IL, PA, CO); why not try to put 3 more in play in the hope of taking control of the Senate? The obvious candidates are New York and California, but let’s not forget about Connecticut: Not only is it not as blue as Massachussetts, but Richard Blumenthal’s position as an invincible Attorney General looks less firm since Coakley’s loss.

The icing on the cake could be Indiana: Rep. Mike Pence is reportedly meeting NRSC officials to talk about the possibility he might challenge Evan Bayh! That wouldn’t automatically become a top-tier race, but it would certainly be a race well-worth watching. The mere fact that we’re talking about the possibility that Bayh might have to worry about his re-election race is a testament to just how low Democrats have sunk.

A few silver linings for Democrats

If even the most pessimistic Democrats could not have imagined living through such a nightmare, there are a few silver linings worth mentioning. The first is that they lost Massachusetts’s Senate seat for only 3 years rather than the usual 6: Scott Brown is up for re-election in 2012, when he will surely be one of the most endangered incumbents nationwide. He has enough political talent that he could survive, of course, but it will not be easy considering he has little time to entrench himself and that he would have to deal with Obama’s coattails.

Second, the failures of Coakley’s campaign ensure that other Democrats do not take anything for granted. If Republicans are now crowning that they can win anywhere, Democrats are more aware than ever that they can lose anywhere. Sure, everyone already knew that 2010 would be tough for Democrats - but there is a difference between believing it to be true and receiving proof like yesterday’s. As such, the GOP shouldn’t expect Blumenthal to rest on his laurels as he might have been tempted to do had he not witnessed the collapse of his Massachusetts colleague; similarly, the NRCC cannot hope to take Democratic House members by surprise, as the DCCC had done to supposedly safe GOP incumbents in the final weeks of the 2006 campaign.

Unfortunately for liberals, the week could still get much worse: The Supreme Court just called a special session tomorrow and it is expected to decide Citizens United. That could mark the end of campaign finance regulations as we know it.

MA results thread: In an unbelievable upset, Dems have lost their 60th seat

10:30pm: My last update of the night. The main silver living for Democrats: Losing a Senate seat is something a party has to deal with for 6 years, but Brown will be up for re-election in only 3 (in 2012, where he’ll have to deal with Obama’s coattails). Of course, that’s plenty of time to give plenty of headaches to Senate Democrats looking to break GOP filibusters. Another silver lining: Given Democratic consternation, you would think the party has lost everything tonight, but it’s worth remembering that they were at 58 Senate votes when 2009 started (Franken wasn’t sure to win and Specter was a Republican).

There will be a lot of criticism directed at Martha Coakley, most of it is entirely justified, but there is no question that none of this would have been possible had the environment not been so favorable to Republicans; a lot of typically Democratic voters, a lot of blue-collar voters either did not vote or cast a ballot for Brow. This does speak to the White House’s basic failure to seem like it is has done much to help the working-class over the past year. For instance, for the White House to have framed the health-care debate as a collaboration with insurance and drug companies resulted in their completetly abandoning the populist mantle to the hard-right - all the more so when popular elements like the public option were dropped. This is even more clear when we look at financial regulations and the administration’s policies towards banks, which has certainly done little to satisfy voters’ desire to see corporations or executives punished for their responsibility in the economic crisis. However hapless Coakley’s campaign, Democrats have to be prepared to underperform massively among their base once they gave back Larry Summers and his ideological allies their influence on the party’s economic direction. In any case, such a momentous upset certainly requires Democrats to go through a lot of soul-searching.

More on this another day, no doubt, but I hope Brown’s triumph makes Democrats as angry as Max Baucus and Blue Dogs like Mike Ross who forced the chamber’s leadership to delay the health care votes by at least 3 months for no apparent reason, for what could they possibly have gained out of the delay other than making a bill many of them would end up voting for more unpopular? Now, Democrats dragged the debate for so long that they can’t even be sure how it will end anymore. More on this soon, no doubt.

9:45pm: For once, I really do feel like nothing I can say at this minute will do justice to how shocking and politically significant this result is. Sure, we had a week to progressively get used to the idea that Brown might pull this off, but you surely all remember that just 15 days ago Coakley was believed to be heading towards a 20% victory - if not more. Who at the start of 2010 thought there was any reason to even poll Massachussetts, to give it a second of thought? Fast forward just 19 days, and Republicans have pulled off an unbelievable upset.

We’re talking about one of the country’ most staunchly Democratic states, a seat occupied for decades by Teddy Kennedy, a statewide official running against a little-known state legislator, large fundraising disparity, a presidential visit - Brown beat all the odds that you can possibly imagine by a relatively comfortable margin. Add to that the vote’s huge political stakes - a 60-vote majority, health-care reform, jittery congressmen eying retirement - and this upsets looks all the more momentous. Even the most pessimistic of Democrats couldn’t have possibly imagined they’d live such a nightmare.

9:35pm: The only suspense now is Brown’s margin of victory, which could still be decisive in one respect: How credibly can Democrats argue that certification should be delayed until all overseas ballots have been received and fully counted? With 85% reporting, Brown’s lead is 5% - still nearly 100,000. Still nothing from Cambridge, while Brookline just reported, and it gave Coakley 74% of the vote; that’s “only” a 6% drop relatively to Obama’s 80%. She is also doing well in Boston, which at this point has her at 68% (with a fifth remaining). She did what she needed in the cities; but the rest of the state didn’t follow suit.

9:25pm: The AP has called it: Scott Brown is projected to have won Massachussetts’s special election. A result so stunning and so jaw-dropping that I don’t even know what adjectives I should use anymore. Simply put, Brown’s victory is arguably the biggest electoral upset in modern political history - and an unfathomable nightmare for Democrats. (Also, it appears to be confirmed by some press outlets that Coakley did concede before the AP’s call. WHAT IS THIS?!)

9:20pm: Coakley has reportedly called Brown to concede. Not that she had much of a chance left, but why in the world would you decide to concede before a single media source has called your race?! You might at least wait a bit longer, what’s the hurry? Does she have another vacation to attend?

9:15pm: One other place that could reduce the gap: Brookline which hasn’t reported at all but gave Obama 80%. She is now leading by 33% in Boston (she has 66%), but more than half has reported so the gap isn’t as big anymore.

9:10pm: Coakley now trails by 90,000 votes with nearly two-thirds of the vote in. She can at best hope to get a 20,000 vote lead out of Cambridge, and much of the rest would have to come from Boston; she now leads by 27% there, with 44% reporting. Coakley will probably reduce the margin some by the end of the night, but the GOP has most probably won its 41st vote. Democrats still have a glimmer of hope that Boston’s results might hold surprises.

9:05pm: I’m not exactly sure what can save Coakley at this point. Sure, she’s slowly building up support in Boston (she’s now at 62%, with a third reporting), but at this point she probably need to receive approximately 70% there to win this - and she’s far from that. Cambridge could make it close, however, and the fact that neither it nor Boston have reported that much is probably keeping any call from being made. But obviously things look good for Brown. With 60% in, he is still up 7%.

9:01pm: Voting is now going very quickly: 57% has been counted, and nothing has moved since Brown is still up 7% - and about 90,000 votes at this point! Brown continues to pull off monster surges in the Boston suburbs, but Coakley can pull off good results as well: Newton, which had given Obama 75% of the vote, voted for Coakley by 67%. This is exactly what she needs: Staying within 10% of Obama in the bigger towns. But was turnout high enough? Only 1 out of 33 Cambridge precincts are reporting.

8:58pm: It’s not even been an hour since the polls closed, but the writing is starting to be on the wall. A quarter of Boston has now reported, and while it’s hard to know exactly where those precincts are located Coakley would need far more than the 59% she currently has if she has any hope of keeping it close - let alone winning.

8:53pm: Still more potentially fatal news for Coakley: We’d been keeping an eye on Democratic strongholds, but perhaps Brown will build big margins out of thoe Massachusetts town that have been known to vote Republican. In Dracut, which is relatively populous, McCain had received 49% to Obama’s 48%; now, Brown just won it by… 40%! That’s obviously very very damaging to Coakley’s chances, who is certailny not overperforming anywhere. 40% are now reporting, and Brown has a lead of 55,000 (7%).

8:46pm: Perhaps the worst sign yet for Democrats comes from Nantucket, where Coakley collapsed to 51% compared to Obama’s 68%… Very ugly. Also: Everett is a fairly large town which Coakley won, but she did lose 13% compared to Obama - that’s more than she can afford. With 29% reporting, Coakley is still down 5%. Not going as Democrats were dreaming it would.

8:40pm: Massachusetts sure counts its ballots fast (which I guess was also the case on December 8th). We’ve already reached 21% reporting, and Brown is increasing his lead: He’s now ahead by 30,000 votes. Still extremely little reporting from Democratic strongholds. For now, here’s what we can say: Brown is doing what he needs to do (and more) in Western Massachusetts, but possibility that Coakley saves herself elsewhere still exists.

8:38pm: Finally, some encouraging good results for Coakley: In Lawrence, Obama received 79% of the vote and Coakley is holding on to 73% with half of the vote reporting; I obviously do not know how the rest of Lawrence will come in, but Lawrence is a relatively large town so we will see whether Coakley can keep it up in more populated areas. With 13% reporting, she does trail by 24,000.

8:35pm: With 11% in, Brown has a 7% lead, which comes to 17,000 votes. Nothing from places like Boston and Cambridge, but Coakley is underperforming in most small towns that are completing their count; take Ashland, for instance, where she fell 15% compared to Obama. But nothing fatal for now.

8:30pm: Orleans gave Obama 58%, today it’s given Coakley 46%. The Republican also over-performing in Shrewsbury, where he got 60% (McCain had gotten 41%). One important thing: Joe Kennedy is a complete non-factor, confirming the latest polls that had him coming lower and lower. As conservatives realized that Brown could win it, they appeared to have migrated towards the Republican nominee.

8:25pm: With 5% reporting, Brown has a 6,000 vote lead. Results are still very early, and obviously it’s one thing for Brown to overperform Obama in different parts of the state, so little definitive indication for now. Take Concord, for instance, which just finished reporting: Coakley won 62%, which means a 2,000 vote lead; Obama had won 70%. Coakley can afford an 12% drop off of Obama, so this is one good sign.

8:20pm: Bolton, a relatively populated town that had given Obama 55%, has already reported all of its results - and Brown received 57%.

8:15pm: Way for Rasmussen to give some hope to everyone, eh? Meanwhile, votes have started being counted: Brown leads by 9% with 12 precincts reporting out of… 2168. Reminder: MA releases results by towns rather than county, which makes it a bit tougher to see where new votes are coming in from.

8:10pm: Rasmussen has apparently completed an Election Day poll… and they’re teasing that results will be coming soon. They have two nuggets for now. One good for Democrats: Coakley leads 47%-41% among those who decided who to vote for over past few days. (She also leads among those who decided earlier, but that’s hardly a surprise.) One good for Republicans: 22% of Democrats voted for Brown, which is very rough for Coakley.

8pm: Polls have now closed. No exit poll, so now we wait. (And I apologize for misspelling Massachusetts a few times!) We should have some results within the next 20 minutes. You can follow the AP results here.

Original post: It’s 7:30pm ET, and Massachusetts polls will be open for 30 more minutes. Turnout is still projected to be impressively high by special election standards, but who that helps is obviously open to interpretation. For what it’s worth, it does look like turnout in Boston is not quite as high as Coakley would need. Since there will be no exit poll, we will have nothing to follow but raw vote counts. (This is yet another reflection of how unprepared everyone was for this race to be competitive: when is the last time there were no exit polls in a major statewide election?)

Since early this afternoon, Democrats have been engaging in a firing squad that is stunning not only by its immediate viciousness, but also by the fact that it started in the middle of Election Day! With many Democratic officials pinning the blame of everything that has happened over the past two weeks on Martha Coakley, the Attorney General’s camp fired back with a memo accusing national Democrats of failing to engage and being responsible for the tough environment that has contributed to her decline.

This is a case where everyone is right, of course, as Scott Brown’s surge can only be explained by a mixture of all these factors, but couldn’t anonymous Washington aides have waited a few more hours before attacking Coakley? Couldn’t the latter’s campaign have waited just a few more hours before releasing that memo? Why is there anyone at Coakley’s campaign who is spending Election Day writing lengthy and detailed memos about who is to blame about the candidate’s weakness? Whatever happens tonight, Democrats better clean up their game by the fall.

Reading the early tea leaves in Massachusetts

When is the last time Democrats woke up so terrified on an Election Day?

Enjoying one of the most dramatic surges in recent electoral history, state Senator Scott Brown has led in most polls released over the past week, some of them by decisive margins. There is no question that he heads into the vote with as much momentum as a candidate can dream of and that for him to lose the race would be a slight surprise at this point.

Yet, Democrats still have reason to hope that the nightmare they’ve been living will end tonight: Massachusetts remains a massively Democratic state, most of these surveys have the race within the margin of error and only was one poll was completed after Barack Obama’s Sunday visit, which his party hoped would convince Democratic voters to not only go out to the polls but also not to cross over to Brown’s camp. Furthermore, early reports of impressively high turnout might be encouraging news for Coakley as it signals pollsters might have been using too tight a likely voter screen and that casual Democratic voters’ have turned out after all. (More on this below.)

While Democrats are also hoping that what is their more mature GOTV operation is enough to close the edge Brown appears to have gained over the past week, this is one advantage that might have been undermined by Martha Coakley’s failure to take the general election seriously - and thus probably to build as good a ground game as she needs today. Here’s what a friend who traveled to Massachussetts to volunteer for Coakley e-mailed me last night:

While our voter contact is okay whenever we have been out, it’s a mess. Today we realized that the field office we’d been working out of was the only one in Boston (we just thought it was one of several). Very bad sign given that it was not super busy. Bad volunteer management, just low energy overall, tho it was very good at a rally for Martha today. Really I think the story of this election is the completely awful lack of organization. Will see though, people do seem aware. Almost no voter has claimed it is not important to vote.

Obviously, not much can be made out of anecdotal evidence - but the failures of Coakley’s campaign are undeniable. Here’s perhaps the most stunning information I saw today: Since the December 8th primary, Brown held 66 events while Coakley held… 19! That’s 19 over more than 40 days! I am not saying that this alone explains how Democrats got where they are today (even the worst of candidates shouldn’t be in a position to lose a federal race in Massachussetts, especially when the Republican nominee wasn’t a particularly fearsome or formidable candidate), but those numbers are just jaw-dropping, especially when combined with the fact that the Democrat stayed off the air until 10 days out.

We’ll wait until tomorrow morning for any detailed effort at explaining what might have happened since the beginning of the year, as well as in any attempt to divine the fate of the health-care bill should Brown pull off the upset of the decade tonight. For now, there are numerous reports circulating about how jittery centrist Democrats might move to kill the reform if Brown wins - and even if Coakley pulls off a tight victory. Clearly, these Democrats are determined to commit full electoral suicide. As 1994 showed, not passing any bill is the surest way to guarantee heavy losses: the party would have nothing to run on but a record of ineffectiveness, the liberal base would be very depressed, and Democrats who think that not passing any health-care bill could make conservatives less motivated are probably the same who thought delaying passage from July to the fall would give them more cover.

For now, let’s concentrate on today: What are the tea leaves telling us about what’s going on on the ground today? There will be no exit polls, so until vote counts start to come in we will get no hint of what is going on except information about turnout patterns. The problem with such information is that it is almost always anecdotal and open to interpretation.

What we do know for sure: Turnout is high. Not quite the 70% The Boston Herald floated last week, but very high nonetheless. The Secretary of State said this morning he expected it to reach at least 40%, but fresher projections suggest it could hover around 55% - a large number for a special election on a random mid-January Tuesday.

Some argue that higher turnout could help Brown, but I do think this is more likely be good news for Coakley’s camp: The higher the turnout the more likely that the electorate resembles that of a “normal” election rather than a special election, which limits the odds of a wide turnout gap. Indeed, Massachussetts is a massively Democratic state so this signals to me that Democrats have been successful at getting their casual base out to the polls - something that was certainly not obvious last week.

The problem for Coakley, as I wrote about on Sunday, is that her troubles are no longer about a complacent base: She is also facing massive defections among voters who almost systematically vote Democratic. This morning, Politico quoted a Democratic operative saying that the DSCC’s GOTV workers are stunned by the number of Obama voters who are supporting Brown, which matches the many polls that have shown she is stuck under 80% among registered Democrats, and she is losing by huge margins among independents, which in this state are an undeniably left-leaning constituency. As such, high turnout cannot be enough to save Coakley. An important question, then: Did Obama’s visit change any Democratic-leaning voters’ minds? If it did, this couldn’t really have been picked up by any of the polls.

Beyond the overall turnout rate, what people are watching for is turnout in different parts of the state - and here is where the evidence gets really anecdotal. By early in the afternoon, a consensus seemed to have formed that turnout is increasing disproportionately in the Boston suburbs (where Brown is expected to do well) than in Boston itself (where Coakley needs big margins). If this holds - and, as I said, this cannot but be based on anecdotal evidence - it would obviously be good for the Republican, but (and this is too often forgotten), remember that we’ve been expecting a turnout gap: The question isn’t whether GOP-friendly areas are more motivated than Democratic-strongholds, but whether that gap is large enough to overcome the state’s massively Democratic nature. Nothing we’ve read for now allows us to answer that; if anything, the fact that no one is denying that turnout is also higher than expected in Boston should give Democrats hope that all is not lost.

Also, I am covering every detail of Massachussetts developments on Twitter. There will obviously be a liveblog tonight, starting sometime around 7:30pm: polls close at 8pm.

As you wait, here are a few posts to read about what to look out for tonight as the results start coming in, as in what areas of the state the candidates have to perform well in and which areas are bellwethers: one from Blue Mass, one from a Swing State Project diary.

Will Obama’s visit be enough to halt Brown’s momentum?

[Updated below] Public Policy Polling’s last survey of Massachussetts will make Democrats yearn for last week’s PPP poll, the one many people dismissed as a GOP-friendly outlier: Scott Brown is now up 51% to 46%.

The margin that is still barely within the MoE - but there is no mistaking  the trendline, since it’s been the same according to every pollster: the Republican has all the momentum. (A second poll is out tonight, and it finds Brown leading by a large margin: 51% to 41%. But it was released by the Merriman River Group, a firm I had never heard about, and it was conducted in the space of four hours - between 5pm and 8pm on Wednesday. Both of these facts make me extremely weary to treat this poll as a credible one, but everyone can make up his own mind based on the info.)

If PPP’s top lines are brutal for Martha Coakley, so are the internals. 20% of Obama voters go for Brown, while only 4% of McCain voters go for Coakley; the Republican leads 64% to 32% among independents; 56% of voters say Brown has made a better case for why he should be elected, versus 41% who respond Coakley, which leaves no doubt that the only thing that’s allowing Coakley to hang on is that the state has such a staunchly Democratic electorate to start with.

But the ugliest result of all for Democrats is the candidates’ favorability rating. While Brown’s favorability rating only fell 1% in the past week (57 to 56), Coakley’s went from 50% to 44%. Sure Brown’s unfavorability increased much more than his opponent’s, but his ability to maintain his level even as his opponent finally went on the offensive is an astounding testament to just how much Coakley’s campaign has messed up. How could her camp allow Brown to have the airwaves for himself and to introduce himself to voters who had no idea who he was without the faintest push back?

The past few days’ events indeed suggests that Democrats might have woken up too late. After all, even as they thought that Coakley would regain her footing as soon as they got more active, there’s no denying that it is Brown who’s gained considerable ground over the past week. He gained 7% in Rasmussen, 4% in PPP and while the two surveys that found him ahead by 10% and 15% don’t come with any of the credibility they’d need for us to put much stock in them, it’s not like Democratic internal polls are telling a pretty story. Furthermore, the more the Attorney General has been under the spotlight the more vulnerable she has looked, and news stories that portray her as uninterested in campaigning and scoffing at the idea of shaking hands are just stunning given the situation she finds herself in.

There will be plenty of time to play the game blame on Wednesday morning if Brown pulls it off. For now, there’s still no reason for Democrats to give up. First, no credible public poll has found Brown leading outside of the margin of error; PPP, ARG and Suffolk were all within the MoE.

Second, Democrats’ superior machine in this state does give them reason to hope that polls are somewhat underestimating their base’s turnout. Thus, an important question going into Tuesday: How much can Democrats and their labor allies make up with a superior GOTV operation?

Yet, this alone cannot save Coakley because her problem no longer seems to be the turnout gap or a complacent Democratic electorate. At this point, voters are aware that the race is competitive and PPP found the electorate would be slightly more Democratic than it looked last week, but at the same time, typically-Democratic voters have moved to Brown’s camp. Sure, Coakley still needs her base to be more motivated than it appears, but this is no longer entirely an issue of turnout.

This gets us to the most important silver lining for Democrats: The poll was conducted Saturday through Sunday, so it can’t have recorded much if any effect from Barack Obama’s trip this afternoon.

If the White House agreed to send the president over, they had to have been confident that he would move numbers - not just in order to drive up turnout, but also in order to convince those Obama voters who are attracted to Brown to come back to the Democratic camp. (I didn’t see the speech, but some journalists who did weren’t impressed.) At the very least, for the first time tomorrow morning Coakley will get the type of headline she’s failed to receive for the past two weeks: a picture of her sharing the stage with Obama could still move numbers in her direction. Dems also have hope this 2008 video in which Brown suggests that Obama was born out of wedlock could put the Republican on the defensive; here again, how could the party not have had this ready back in December?! Perhaps more damaging might be this video taken this afternoon, in which Brown sure appears to smirk when a supporter audibly screams “Shove a curling iron up her butt” at a rally.

Will Obama’s visit and Democrats’ digging up footage they should have had ready in December be enough to halt Brown’s momentum? As I doubt many surveys will be released tomorrow, we probably won’t have much of an idea before Tuesday night whether Democrats’ week-end offensive was more successful than this past week’s campaign was. I for one have no clear idea of what is going to happen on Tuesday; but if the past week sure has seemed to be as brutal as it can gets for Democrats, the coming one has the potential to be far uglier.

Update: Is there a Joe Kennedy factor? The Libertarian Party nominee (who is not related to Teddy Kennedy despite his last name) will also appear on the ballot tomorrow, and some of the polling divergence appears to be corrolated with his performance:

  • The two polls that have shown Coakley leading outside of the MoE are the two in which Kennedy receives his highest support by far: 5% (Research 2000) and 6% (Boston Globe/UNH).
  • The two polls that have shown Brown’s greatest leads (Pajamas Media and PPP) do not include him at all.
  • Rasmussen, ARG and Suffolk, all of which have the race within the MoE do include Kennedy but find him at more modest levels than Research 2000 and UNH: 3% (Rasmussen and Suffolk) and 2% (ARG).

The variation might not be large enough to be decisive, but there does appear to be a clear pattern at work here. Even if Kennedy cuts just 1-2% off of Brown, that could obviously be significant. On the other hand, perhaps voters who were planning on voting third-party will migrate to Brown now that he looks like he could pull it off.

A stunning dead heat

[Updated below] I’m not sure how Obama was originally planning on spending his day on Sunday January 17th, but I doubt he had even envisioned the possibility he might have to travel to Boston. The special election for Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat was supposed to be a formality; instead it has become a golden opportunity for Republicans to end Democrats’ 60-seat majority and break their spirits just 10 months from the midterms.

While surveys have continued diverging, as is to be expected when we’re talking about a special election for which pollsters have little precedent on the basis of which to construct turnout models, even Martha Coakley’s internal polls are reportedly showing the two candidates tied, with Scott Brown slightly ahead in Thursday night’s sample. Furthermore, two public surveys joined PPP in finding the Republican leading within the MoE: 50% to 46% according to Thursday’s Suffolk poll, 49% to 46% according to today’s ARG poll. (Not only does Brown have a 21% lead among independents, but he manages to win the support of 20% of Democrats; only 1% of Republicans are planning to vote for Coakley.)

Two surveys did find the race outside of the MoE - one benefiting each side. In a poll that was in the field at the same time as Suffolk’s, Research 2000 showed Coakley leading by 49% to 41%. Meanwhile, a conservative firm called the Black Rock found Brown leading by 15%, but this is one survey whose results we should bracket because they have nearly no track record and their results are shady. To recap: over the past week, PPP, Rasmussen, Suffolk and Coakley’s internal polls showed the race within the margin of error, while Research 2000 stood alone in finding the Democrat posting a decisive lead. The special election is genuinely a dead heat.

When it first appeared that there might be something to see in Massachussetts (that was less than 2 weeks ago!), Scott Brown’s momentum merely looked like a headache for Democrats - one that would force them to spend money, would embolden Republicans and would give the NRSC bragging rights, but one that was ultimately unlikely to go the GOP’s way. In fact, the mere fact that the race had become had a story seemed to confirm Democrats would be able to pull it off: that the press started covering the contest as a highly competitive barnburner seemed to guarantee Democratic voters would at least not be complacent.

But just 3 days from Election Day, the election is no longer a headache - it’s a full blown crisis. If at first some Democrats thought they were just playing up the race’s competitiveness to help boost turnout, none now deny that a Brown victory is a very real possibility. Gone is any sense of confidence; expressing worry is no longer a strategy, it’s a sign of the genuine panic that has seized the entire party for the past week.

And if this isn’t worthy of panicking over, what is? For Coakley to lose would not only be remembered as one of the past few decades’ biggest upsets, but it would also have immediate consequences, as Democrats would be sent scrambling to figure out how they should proceed with the health-care bill. (This should be of particular worry to liberals, since the solution the White House might push is that the House pass the Senate version without making any changes, which would mean the bill can be adopted without any further action from the Senate. The House, which has already given up so much during the debate, will push back, pointing out that there are also ways for the upper-chamber to adopt the bill without 60 votes, but this would sure complicate matters. The last option, of course, would be that Demorats get Massachussetts’s Secretary of State to delay the certification of the special election for as long as he legally can, which could push back the new senator’s swearing-in until February; while Republicans managed to delay Al Franken’s seating by 6 months, Democrats are rarely as willing to play hardball.)

Everywhere we look, we see signs that Democrats are in panic mode. Just look at this mailer that says: “1736 women were raped in Massachussetts in 2008. Scott Brown wants hospitals to turn them all away.” That claim is at best a gross exaggeration. But what else does a campaign do do when it has 7 days to get a candidate off a 57/19 pedestal? Yes, I did say 57/19. That’s Brown’s favorability rating according to the Suffolk poll; Coakley’s stood at 49/41.

Let’s think about that for a moment: We’re 5 months into the campaign in one of the country’s bluest state, and Democrats have let a low-profile Republican increase his name recognition to 76% - nearly all of which are made up by positive impressions! Sure, given the national trends it’s clearly unfair to blame Coakley for the entirety of this situation, but these numbers really point to a massive failing on the part of her campaign. Where were they for the past 5 weeks? How could they let Brown have the state for himself ever since he won the GOP primary, allowing him to introduce him to voters without any push back - allowing him to proclaim that he is an independent in the tradition of John F. Kennedy without any Democrat thinking it might be worthwhile to remind voters that he is a Republican? They woke up early this week, but by then they only had a week left to convince voters that a man they’ve come to like is not to be trusted. That’s not a long time, and it has forced the party to go all-out all-at-once.

The DSCC and DNC are pouring precious resources in the state, as are unions, environmental groups and other liberal organizations. The DSCC has spent more than 1 million dollars; SEIU tops $500,000, The League of Conservation Voters (here is their ad) and a labor 527 have both spent around $300,000. Even the DCCC has found a way to be involved, as House Democrats’ campaign arm are doing their best to send volunteers Coakley’s way! (The NRSC is not on TV. At this point, the only explanation I can think of is that they’ve that having an ad supporting Brown end with “the National Republican Senatorial Committe is responsible for the content of this advertising” would do him more harm than good. Other GOP-boosting groups are helping out, however; the Chamber of Commerce and the American Future Fund have spent around $400,000 on Brown’s behalf.)

Of course, all of this could still save Coakley. Democrats are done hoping that the shift in polls was just a dip that would be easily cured, but there’s no question that Massachussetts is a blue enough that the way in which this race has been nationalized over the past 7 days (even Sarah Palin endorsed Brown!) could certainly hurt the Republican nominee - not only by making more Democrats turn out but also in reminding left-leaning voters who are considering voting for Brown of a federal race’s stakes.

For instance, Democrats have tried to focus on Brown’s comments on Wall Street regulations - a theme they’re likely to continue into Tuesday. “But if Brown won’t protect American consumers from corporate predators, what is his agenda?” asks a DSCC ad. The party is also not hesitating going after Brown for saying that he would be the 41st vote against health-care reform, a reflection of the fact that a Brown win could only occur if opponents to the bill are a disproportionate share of Tuesday’s electorate. All of this has forced Brown to address national issues more with more systematicity than he was hoping to in the final days of the campaign, which could help blunt some of his momentum - though it’s striking how successful the Republican has been in presenting himself as an nonthreatening ‘regular guy.’ (Also: Politico quotes union leaders suggesting that a gender dynamic might be in play; the article points out that Massachussetts has never elected a female governor or senator.)

Finally, all the big names the Democratic Party has mobilized in recent days should boost turnout efforts. Coakley just started airing an ad featuring nothing but Vicky Kennedy speaking directly to the camera for 30 seconds; Bill Clinton held a rally; and Obama’s trip should allow Coakley to control the news all of Sunday, earning a lot of free media on Sunday night and in Monday’s papers. Given that the same polls that show Coakley struggling also find Obama has kept a strong approval rating, which wasn’t necessarily the case in NJ and VA in 09, there is little doubt this should be helpful. After all, Obama’s engagement in the campaign goes beyond tomorrow’s event; he’s also recorded a robocall urging people to go out to vote. It will be interesting to see whether any of this agitation has helped Coakley; PPP will release a poll taken over the week-end tomorrow night.

This gets to why Coakley might have the tiniest of edges left heading into Tuesday: repeating that Massachussetts is one of the bluest states in the country isn’t just a way of saying that voters usually vote Democratic. It also means that the party has a strong machine (a superior infrastructure, stronger state party, a larger network of elected officials) and that it has allies (unions) that have strong on-the-ground operations as well; it also means Democrats can rely on prominent national figures like Obama and Clinton to help increase awareness of the election, while the GOP cannot afford to do so. This could indicate that Democrats have more to expect from voters who are being screened out of polls (for instance because they did not know the election’s exact date, which was a requirement to count as a likely voter in Suffolk’s poll).

Of course, a Brown victory would be all the more stunning given all of these factors - especially now that it would have to come within 48 hours of Obama’s trip to Boston. Democrats would rather not think about what that would mean about the turnout/energy gap. They still have reason to hope they won’t have to.


One piece of good news for both camps. For Republicans: Coakley’s Friday internal have her trailing by 2%, so the race seems to have stabilized at this point, and Democrats’ heavy artillery has done nothing to change the direction of the race.

For Democrats: The Boston Herald says turnout could reach 70%, which is much higher than what anyone’s been anticipating and about what happens in presidential years; it that is confirmed on Tuesday, I have a hard time seeing how it’s not excellent news for Coakley, as it would mean the electorate is less disproportionately Republican than has been expected due to the special election-factor and that pollsters have been using too tight a likely voter screen.

Democrats dial up volume in Massachussetts special

Update: Is it time for Democrats to start panicking? A new Rasmussen poll finds Martha Coakley leading by only 2% (49% to 47%). This is the first time we can consider trendlines (Rasmussen is the first pollster to release a second poll, and this is where things get scary for Democrats: Coakley led by 9% 10 days ago, so all the momentum is definitely on Scott Brown’s side. Yet more confirmation that the Attorney General is caught in a downward spiral comes from Marc Ambinder’s Twitter account: “FWIW, internal Democratic tracking in MA last week had Coakley up 15. Today, she’s up by five.” Suddenly, PPP has a lot of company - and it’s The Boston Globe that’s looking isolated.

A reminder: The Globe poll was conducted from January 2nd to January 6th, before PPP even went into the field - let alone Rasmussen and these reported internal polls. So any poll that’s been on the ground for the past 10 days has found a dead head. This snoozer of a race is turning into a nightmare for Democrats.

Original post: While an internal Democratic poll (only the fourth survey we have seen of this race) gives Martha Coakley a 14% edge over her opponent, Democrats have gone in full battle mode in Massachussetts: A GOP victory might remain unlikely, but the stakes are simply too high for the party to remain indifferent to the possibility that Scott Brown might win Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat. As a result, with only 7 days to go until the vote Democrats are treating this special election like a full-blown and highly competitive race; for instance, John Kerry sent an e-mail to his list today asking them to help out (read: volunteer, contribute) in what he said had become a “dead heat.”

Over the past 24 hours, the two candidates have appeared to switch places: While you’d expect the front-runner to be taking the high road and the underdog to go on the attack, it’s Coakley who chose to take a sharp negative turn -  and do so in only her second general election ad? (A side note: considering how much money she raised this fall, it is somewhat stunning that her campaign didn’t find a way to go up on air before last week.) This is the best sign that Brown has much of the momentum, and the confirmation that, while no one doubts that the race is still Coakley’s to lose, it is still her race to lose.

Coakley’s spot has as simple a message as you can imagine: Scott Brown is a Republican. Since a Republican can only win in the Bay State by de-emphasizing his party affiliation, and Coakley is doing her best to ensure every voter remembers that this election is a federal race in which the partisan stakes are high:

Coakley would have more reason to worry about the ad potentially backfiring if it was primarily aimed at turning independent voters away from Brown; if these traditionally left-leaning independents are considering voting for a Republican, it means they’re turned off by Democrats and this ad won’t necessarily help matters on that front. But her main goal now is to turn out loyal Democrats: If turnout reaches a decent level and if the two bases aren’t disproportionately represented, it’s hard to see her losing. As such, Coakley’s strategy will continue to be to dramatize this election to ensure voters think of it as a high-stakes battle and remember to turn out on January 19th.

Coakely should be helped by the dramatic change in media coverage: A race that just a week ago was relegated to the back pages is now at the forefront of every political observer’s mind, which should presumably help her ensure turnout is high. As such, last night’s debate was charged and heated, yet more evidence that Coakley has understood that she can’t coast till January 19th. This led to some tense exchanged. “I’m not in your courtroom. I’m not a defendant,” Brown said at one point. At another: “You can run against Bush-Cheney, but I’m Scott Brown. I live in Wrentham. I drive a truck.” Interestingly, Brown doesn’t appear to have done much of an effort to appear like a moderate. Witness his warnings that “we are at war. We’re at war in our airports. We’re at war in our shopping malls.” He also confirmed that he wouldn’t entertain the thought of supporting health-care reform, which highlights just how important this election is since it will come just a week or two before the final health care vote.

Of course, the mere fact that Democrats have been forced to treat this race as competitive is already a huge victory for Republicans, one that does foretell the success of their map expansion strategy this fall.

Indeed, the DSCC just dumped more than $550,000 in Massachussetts airwaves. That should help Coakley hold off Brown’s momentum, but it is also an expensive commitment by a party committee that has already many seats to defend in November. Worse still for Democrats, the DSCC opened its wallet without the NRSC having to do anything; the combination of tighter-than-expecting polling (the public ones, of course, but also presumably private surveys) and a huge fundraising success from Brown made national Democrats so nervous that they could not afford sit still.

Here lies the benefit of expanding the map to the degree the GOP is trying to do. Republicans have nothing to lose in districts like AR-02, PA-17, VA-09, WV-01 or in Senate races like California’s and Massachussetts’s; Democrats, on the other hand, cannot afford to lose these races. As long as a GOP candidate has some fundraising success, benefits from encouraging polling numbers or gains some momentum on the ground, the DSCC and the DCCC are forced to pay attention even if the NRSC and NRCC haven’t gotten involved. While these marginally competitive races can be defended more easily than the toss-ups, saving them then means devoting less money to more obviously vulnerable seats (OH-15, for instance) and certainly far less to any hope of offense (PA-15, NH-Sen).

Sure, $550,000 won’t drive the DSCC to bankruptcy, but this is an eerie parallel to what happened to Republicans over the past two years. Remember that by end of the 2008 campaign, McCain had to divert money to North Carolina and Florida at the expense of even more vulnerable states, like Colorado. And it’s not just the DSCC that’s getting involved: labor groups will reportedly pour money in Massachussetts to help out Coakley.

All this agitation on the Democratic side has allowed Brown to try to seize the high road, as a response ad he released this morning blasts Coakley for attacking him instead of talking about issues like health care. He goes on to appeal to “every independent-minded voter;” needless to say, the spot never mentions the word “Republican.”

Brown is somewhat limited in what he can do. Since Coakley has strong favorability ratings, he needs to bring them down to ensure that Democratic-leaning voters consider voting for him - just as Jon Corzine’s profound unpopularity allowed Christie to receive support from voters who typically never vote Republicans. Yet, his only hope of victory is to keep the election uncontroversial enough as to not give the Democratic base a reason to turn out; for him to attack the popular Attorney General could fire up partisan passions and infuriate casual liberals into finding him repulsive enough to care about this election.

7 days remain, and the key question is exactly that: will casual voters who automatically vote Democratic when they do go to the polls care enough to counter the phenomenal energy of those casual voters who automatically vote Republican? Democrats can only hope all the political and financial capital they’re pouring into the race will be enough to ensure of that.

Dems grow frightened in Massachussetts

Scott Brown, 48%. Martha Coakley, 47%.

What was for months a fairly boring special election has turned into a terrifying possibility for Democrats: Could they actually lose Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat on January 19th? When I took a look at this question on Tuesday (my post was buried within minutes by the series of high-profile events that unfolded that afternoon), I listed a long series of reasons that made this very highly unlikely (Massachussetts’s reliably Democratic status, the election being a federal race, Coakley’s stature, the strong campaign she ran in the primary) but pointed out that Scott Brown could pull off an upset if Democratic voters grow complacent or disinterested.

According to PPP, that is exactly what has happened: The electorate that is preparing to turn out in 9 days is more Republican than is the state-at-large, as it voted for Barack Obama by 16% rather than the 26% victory Obama secured in 2008. A similar turnout gap ensured the GOP’s landslide victory in Virginia this past November, since Virginians who turned out to vote in the Governor’s race had decisively voted for McCain (Obama won the state by 5% in 2008). Whether it is because they are turned off by the way their party is governing or because they haven’t realized the special election is actually competitive, many Massachussetts Democrats are not planning on showing up on January 19th. Enough to put victory within reach for Brown.

PPP’s poll also reveals another problem for Coakley, this one linked to her party’s problem with non-Democrats: Voters who have a negative view of both parties, which comes out to a significant 20% of the electorate, Brown received more than 70% of the vote! This is exactly the type of voters who are responsible for waves, and it confirms that by virtue of controlling Washington Democrats are bound to get the lion’s share of the blame for the country’s problems.

Put these two factors together, and it gives a state Senator few were paying attention a statistically insignificant but symbolically priceless 1% lead. Before we even take into account any other polls, however, I see two major reasons for Democrats not to completely panic:

  1. Internal numbers are as good for Brown as they can possibly. There is a huge turnout gap, a large motivation gap; he has a 32% lead among independents, solid support among Republicans and a strong favorability rating. But he only comes ahead by 1%. In short: Even in the best case scenario, Brown can hardly expect to pull off more than a squeaker. Coakely improving just one of the many weaknesses this poll reveals should help her prevent that.
  2. Since complacency seems to be responsible for some of Coakley’s predicament, a poll like PPP’s is the best thing that can happen to her campaign because it ensures Democrats aren’t taken by surprised. Massachussetts is too blue for the Attorney General to lose if Democrats turn out, no matter how energized Republicans are; so Coakley should benefit if this provokes a series of headlines and TV reports about how competitive the race has gotten, if the campaign suddenly gets covered like a barn-burner for the next 10 days. Sure, the DSCC might have to spend money it cannot afford to give up at the moment, Democrats might be humiliated if they have to send high-profile emissaries to MA and the GOP might be granted months of justified gloating and renewed confidence going into November, but the name of the game at this point is keeping the seat. National Democrats will have to delay laments on how low they’ve sunk till January 20th.

The other reason for Democrats not to jump out of the window is that another poll released this morning finds the Attorney General in a much stronger position: The Boston Globe’s survey, conducted by UNH, has her leading Brown by 15% (50% to 35%), a margin that extends to 17% (53-36) when leaners are included. Needless to say, this is far more reassuring for Democrats. The internals confirm Coakley’s better form (she has a 1% edge among independents, for instance) though the motivation gap is also playing out here (those who say they are very interested in the election are split equally).

That makes for quite a big difference between the two polls we received over the past 24 hours. Yet, it’s very hard to say which might be an outlier.

First, we have had very few data points. These are only the second and third polls ever released of this election; the first was a Rasmussen survey that had Coakley up 9%, so somewhere between these two surveys. (Note: PPP is not a Republican firm, as is sometimes said, but a Democratic one.) A Boston Herald will reportedly be released later day, and rumors suggest it will be closer to PPP’s results; namely show Coakley up 7% but only leading by 1% among likely voters. If that indeed plays out, it would more than confirm that Democrats have a huge turnout problem on their hands.

More importantly, we are talking about a special election, so there are few turnout patterns pollsters can rely on to make assumptions about who is a likely voter. We’ll know little definitive until January 19th, and while that might give Democrats an anxiety attack it might just be enough to shake them out of their torpor and carry Coakley across the finish-line.

[I'll update with the Herald poll once it is available. I'll also post about the many other Senate polls that were released over the past few days, and which I have not gotten to. This probably means that I'll post my weekly update with a review of the past week's lower-profile news tomorrow morning.]

Is there anything to see in Massachussetts?

Any suspense as to who would be Teddy Kennedy’s successor was supposed to end on December 8th. Given Massachussetts’ staunchly blue status, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s primary triumph looked to guarantee her a general election victory on January 19th. Yet, we are now two weeks from Election Day and there is suddenly a surprising amount of buzz surrounding state Senator Scott Brown, the GOP nominee.

It all started when conservatives (Patrick Ruffini, The National Review, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling) rallied by Brown’s side, insisting that a victory was not out of the question. And a poll released this morning by Rasmussen appears to confirm that Coakely is not heading towards a blowout: In the only general election poll that’s been conducted since the primary vote, she leads 50% to 41%. That’s nothing to incite panic among in Democratic quarters, but it’s certainly not a significant enough advantage for them to feel absolutely certain Coakley will pull it off.

(The Weekly Standard immersed itself in the conversation by reporting that “the results of a private poll conducted last week by a reputable non-partisan firm” showed Coakley leading 50% to 39%. Take this with a gigantic grain of salt. We have to beware of any private polls, let alone when they are disseminated with absolutely no information as to who conducted it, for whom, when and how. We should have a better idea of where the race stands in the coming days: PPP and The Boston Globe are expected to release surveys over the week-end or early next week.)

Is the sudden burst of optimism among conservatives enough to compensate for what on paper is an overwhelming advantage for Coakley? The Bay State is arguably the most reliably Democratic state in the country; its congressional delegation is entirely made up of Democrats (12-0, to be exact); Coakley is no easy target, as was confirmed by the strong campaign she ran against her solid primary opponents; and Brown was certainly not among one of the NRSC’s top choices as the campaign began.

Any way you look at the state’s demographics, it’s hard to see how the state Senator could possibly reach a majority of the vote. PPP’s Tom Jensen runs the numbers and shows that, even if Democratic turnout fell through the floor (relatively to GOP turnout) as much as it did in Virginia, Coakley would still be on top. Over on Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende hypothesized not only that the partisan breakdown would dramatically shift towards Republicans but that independents will give Brown a large lead (as they did for Christie and McDonnell); even then, his projection found Coakley narrowly edging her opponent.

Things look even better for Democrats when you consider that the arguments that make it unlikely either turnout patterns or the independent vote mirror shifts we saw in Virginia and in New Jersey:

  1. 660,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary while only 150,000 participated in the GOP primary. While that is partly due to the fact that the latter was only nominally competitive, it does make it tough to say that the Democratic base is not paying attention.
  2. Massachussetts is hosting a federal race, not a state race and voters are much less likely to go against their usual voting allegiances in the former than in the latter. It’s possible to imagine a large number of typically Democratic-voting independents going for the GOP in a Governor’s race; much less so in a Senate race.
  3. Independents swung against Democrats in New Jersey because of how deeply they disliked Jon Corzine. Even then, they were so accustomed to voting Democratic that the governor only lost by a few percentage points. In Massachussetts, where independents are just as likely to lean left, why would they hold their nose and vote for a Republican when all evidence suggests they have nothing against Coakley?

In short: For Brown to score an upset would be among modern history’s biggest electoral shockers.

Yet, the DSCC shouldn’t look away. Coakley’s victory could indeed be endangered if her party gets complacent. The results could be surprising if Democratic voters are convinced that there is no reason to bother voting on January 19th while Republicans are energized into believing that the race is tight. The fact that a Brown victory would cause a huge problem for health-care reform’s final passage should motivate the right all the more, while I do not see much of an attempt on the Democratic side to drum up the stakes of the Massachussetts race.

The bottom line is that electoral shockers are more likely than not to occur in special elections: Turnout patterns are necessarily distorted and a slight enthusiasm gap can have disproportionate consequences since there is nothing else to draw voters’ to the poll than this one election. As such, Anh Cao would not have defeated Rep. William Jefferson in 2008 if the election had been held in November; instead, it was delayed until early December because of Hurricane Gustav. African-Americans were too disinterested by Jefferson to show up just to help him, while Republican voters were energized by the incumbent’s corruption and massively went to the polls. We know the rest: A district that had given Obama 74% of the vote sent a Republican to Congress.

Of course, Coakley is no Jefferson and the stakes are too high for national Democrats to let themselves be taken by surprise: If there is evidence in the days ahead that an upset is in the realm of possibilities, the DSCC could make a move. As for the NRSC, they’re highly unlikely to pour in money unless the situation truly looks like a dead heat: Given that Brown still faces very tough odds, national Republicans would set themselves up if they intervened. Not only would they probably waste money, but Coakley’s victory would then be covered as an important Democratic victory rather than be treated as a formality. Yet, their lack of action could further the rift between the national committees and local activists: Conservative groups and Republican blogs are likely to resent NRSC inaction, and recriminations would be particularly ferocious if Brown comes within single-digits on Election Night.

Another Senate race, another poll that has Democrats performing at a weaker level than they’re hoping for: American Research Group released a survey of underpolled New Hampshire. Rep. Paul Hodes would not only trail Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (43% to 36%) but also low-profile conservative Ovide Lamontagne (37% to 31%). In both match-ups, Hodes’s level among Democratic respondents is worrisomely low. While ARG is not the most reliable of pollsters, what is surprising here isn’t that Hodes is trailing Ayotte by 7% (other polls have found a similar result) but that Ayotte and Lamontagne lead by the same margin: It suggests the deficit Hodes has faced since the spring has much more to do with the political environment than with the Attorney General’s popularity.

Massachussetts Dems nominate Martha Coakley

Just had all public polls had predicted, Massachussetts Attorney General Martha Coakley prevailed by a decisive margin in the state’s senatorial primary: With 90% of precincts reporting, she leads Rep. Mike Capuano 47% to 28% - a difference of 100,000 votes - with Alan Khazei receiving 13% and Steve Pagliuca 12%. Coakley moves on to the January general election, where she’ll be the overwhelming favorite against Republican state Senator Scott Brown.

[Update: Gerard very rightly points out that 660,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary, versus only 160,000 in the Republican primary; put otherwise, Brown received fewer votes than Capuano. That goes to show the huge challenge the Republican faces just to keep the general election competitive; Brown can't even hope that turnout patterns will compensate for the state's Democratic loyalties.]

State Democrats passed on the opportunity to send to the Senate someone who would have been one of its most progressive members, but they chose to give Coakley a chance to be the Bay State’s first female senator. Unfortunately, the electorate remained generally apathetic and turnout was low, hovering around 20%.

Coakley’s impressive victory comes on the heel of what was a top-notch campaign. She managed to discreetly build a campaign infrastructure while Ted Kennedy was still alive and she had so many endorsements ready as to look like the favorite from the very moment the race started. And yet, she did not commit the error many front-runners commit: She did not play it safe. Aware that one of her rivals could easily capture voters’ imagination, she did not shy away from making news and managed to leave little room to her left, as she did not hesitate to take high-profile positions like strongly coming out against the escalation in Afghanistan.

Combine her strong campaign with her establishment support and with the fact that she had a lot to endear herself to progressives from the get go (as Attorney General, she built a reputation as being committed to protecting workers’ right and for taking on Wall Street firms), and what you get is a triumph whose magnitude no one could have anticipated when the campaign began.

By contrast, Capuano never managed to translate his flawlessly progressive House record into a campaign that captured progressives’ imagination. Politicians who are as comfortably left-wing as Capuano rarely make it to the Senate and this primary was a golden opportunity for liberals to elect someone who would be a rare progressive champion rather than a generic Democrat. Yet, Capuano didn’t do much with that. While some of this is due to Coakley ensuring that there be few perceptible ideological differences, but a lot of it stems from the failings of Capuano’s campaign.

While Coakley rarely invoked Kennedy, Capuano chose to portray himself as the best equipped to carry on the late senator’s legacy - an argument that did little to advance what had always looked like his main path of victory, i.e. to position himself as a different, more left-wing type of politician. Second, he did not aggressively seek to differentiate himself from the Attorney General and he largely opted not to run a provocative campaign that could make it clear to voters how he was positioning himself.

It says a lot that, in the most contentious moment of the campaign, it is Coakley who managed to come off as the more progressive candidate and it is Capuano was was forced to follow her leftward lead! In the aftermath of the House vote to pass the health-care reform, Coakley announced she would vote against the entire bill if it contained the Stupak amendment. Capuano, who had just voted for a bill that did contain that anti-abortion provision, immediately attacked his rival - but he quickly backtracked to declare he would oppose the conference report if Stupak was left in.

Democrats should be relieved that the primary did not go to Pagliuca, who was seeking the nomination despite having donated to many Republicans throughout the 1990s - most notably to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. His heavy personal spending was not even enough to buy him third place.

Coakley remains front-runner heading into Election Day, but we can’t rule out an upset

In a campaign that never grew that heated, Massachussetts voters are now going to the polls to choose their next Senator - or rather decide which Democrat will head to January’s special election as the heavy favorite to replace Teddy Kennedy.

We were expecting an all-out war, a crowded field of high-profile contenders who would hold nothing back for the chance to move to the Senate; after all, Democrats had been waiting for an open seat for nearly three decades. Even when we realized many of the state’s most prominent politicians had grown too old or were now too senior in the House to be interested in a new career, the fact that only one member of the state’s congressional delegation chose to run suggested he would be able to mount a highly competitive race: He was the only one who could play the legislative experience card, and he was in a position to run as the left’s undisputed champion.

And yet, Attorney General Martha Coakley heads into Election Day as the clear front-runner, just as she was when the campaign started. In fact, she has comfortably held on to that position ever since the campaign started, and while it would not be shocking to see any of her three rivals win the prize, it would constitute a big upset.

Sure, there has been no public polling of the race for quite a while: The most recent survey was released 2 weeks ago, and it showed Coakley holding on to her double-digit lead with Mike Capuano gaining ground. Since then, quite a lot has happened that could suggest the race would tightened - movement that hasn’t been tracked by polls: Alan Khazei has received The Boston Globe’s and Wesley Clark’s endorsements while Capuano drew good reviews for his debate performances and secured the backing of the state’s First Lady and of Michael Dukakis.

And yet there is some evidence that allows us to say that Coakley is still the favorite. First, Suffolk released a bizarre poll of 3 “Bellwether” communities; it found Coakley leading 39% to 25% for Capuano, 13% for Pagliuca and 7% for Khazei. I’m not sure what to make of this survey, but it certainly doesn’t point towards any momentum for any of Coakley’s rivals. Second, two campaigns leaked internal polls over the past week. Coakley’s found her leading by 20%, while Capuano shows her only ahead 35% to 28% - a smaller margin than we have seen in any public poll. The latter survey suggests the congressman is within striking distance, but the fact that his camp thought the most favorable rumor it could credibly spread was that he is trailing by 7% shows the extent to which Coakley remains the front-runner.

None of this is to say that tonight’s results are a foregone conclusion. A Democratic primary with relatively little-defined opponents is bound to be fluid, and the most recent public polls found a very large share of undecided voters: That means no result tonight can be considered that surprising. That is all the more the case since turnout is likely to be very low; it’s unlikely to surpass 500,000 voters, which would represent about 30% of the state’s Democratic electorate. Not only does that make it impossible for pollsters to be confident of their turnout model (as was confirmed during New York City’s mayoral race) but it also makes voter enthusiasm a far more determinant factor than in a typical race.

Coakley built a campaign by taking advantage of her inevitability aura rather than trying to portray herself as the most exciting candidate; that should make it hard for her to benefit from much late momentum or from an overly enthusiastic base of supporters. Yet, she has plenty of backers among labor groups, which can drive up turnout; she has the opportunity to make history as the state’s first female senator; she is well-known in the very important Middlesex County, where she served two terms as DA; and the institutional support she has regularly received have kept her campaign from ever sagging. Just this past week-end, she benefited from Bill Clinton’s endorsement; the former president went on to record robocalls for Coakley, who had endorsed his wife during last year’s presidential race.

Capuano is perhaps in the best position to score a higher percentage than has been predicted. Since his name recognition was far lower than Coakley’s heading into the campaign, he had a lot more room to gain over the past few weeks, during which no public poll was conducted. Also, his organization should be stronger than that of Khazei and Pagliuca, though whether it can rival with Coakley’s remains to be seen; the congressman has received a fair amount of union support, which should help him.

Third, he has cultivated an ideologically pronounced profile that could resonate with those political activists who are most likely to head to the polls; on the other hand, I’d certainly argue that he should have ran an edgier campaign if he wanted to take advantage of his left-wing positioning and I wonder whether he would have ran a different, more aggressive campaign had he had to give up his House seat to run for Senate. Finally, Capuano has a geographical base from which to run; sure, he hasn’t ran a competitive campaign in more than 20 years, but this should help him build up a margin in one part of the state.

Neither Khazei nor Pagliuca have such a geographical base, which isn’t to say they have no chance of winning. For the former, the Boston Globe endorsement could have helped him reach out to undecided voters; but are his attempts to position himself as a post-partisan figure (he for instance landed Mike Bloomberg’s backing) the best strategy to run in a Democratic primary in Massachussetts? His main hope of pulling it off is that a small plurality could be enough in such a crowded field. The same goes for Pagliuca, who is hoping that the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has spent out of his pocket will convince enough voters that he can eke out a small victory in a 4-way race, despite his past support for Republican candidates.

The winner is likely to face state Senator Scott Brown in the general election; the race could be competitive, but it goes without saying that the Democratic nominee will be heavily favored, which ups today’s stakes. Polls close at 8pm ET.

In MA, Coakley remains the front-runner but rivals hope final week brings big movement

There is only one week left before the Democratic primary in the special election to fill Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat, and we might be getting a competitive race after all.

Since the campaign started, Attorney General Martha Coakley has indisputably been the front-runner; she had the most buzz and an inevitability aura, enjoyed a fundraising edge and a massive lead in polls. But the past few weeks have found her rivals’ gaining steam; Coakley remains the clear favorite, but anything can happen in a 4-way race that has stayed low-profile and should be decided by low turnout: A recent poll found that only 22% of Democrats could even identify that the primary would take place in December, let alone the exact date!

Add this to the fact that primaries can be far more fluid than general elections, since far fewer voters will be committed to a camp, and we could see a lot of movement in the closing days. (The situation is analogous to what happened in June in Virginia: After months in which polls found 3 candidates who were essentially tied, Creigh Deeds caught fire in the final two weeks and ended with an unexpectedly decisive victory.)

In fact, last week’s Boston Globe poll found that only 26% of likely voters were certain of who they would vote for, with 50% describing themselves as undecided. Most Democratic voters have been waiting to make up their mind, which heightens the stake of the closing week: The coverage candidates receive in the days ahead will be very important in determining whether an upset might be brewing.

The latest poll of the race, released last week by Rasmussen, found Coakley ahead, but enjoying her smallest lead yet: She receives 36%, Mike Capuano is at 21%, Steve Pagliuca is at 14%, as is Alan Khazei - the first time the latter candidate breaks single-digits.

Indeed, Khazei has been enjoying a surprising amount of momentum in the past 10 days because his efforts to position himself as the good-government reform appear to be paying off: He is emerging as the candidate for voters looking for the type of “post-partisan” figure Capuano certainly isn’t trying to embody. His latest ad has him making a process-argument to bring “change” to Washington; and after securing the backing of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Khazei just received the somewhat unexpected endorsement of the Boston Globe.

The Globe not only embraced Khazei’s “entrepreneurial model of progressive politics” that distances itself both from Reaganite distrust of government and from liberals’ embrace of government (this reminds me of Barack Obama’s controversial comments on Reagan during in early 2008), but also harshly criticized the other candidates. At the very least, The Globe’s endorsement should guarantee that the many voters who are only now looking to make up their mind take a look at Khazei, whereas otherwise they might have overlooked him.

But Capuano can claim momentum of his own. If the Globe’s endorsement should help Khazei get a share of the spotlight, Capuano is enjoying his own string of high-profile endorsements. First, Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed him; then, it was state First Lady Diane Patrick’s turn; and over this past week-end, former Governor Michael Dukakis endorsed him, citing in particular the “courage” of his 2002 vote against the Iraq war. (While Governor Patrick is unpopular among the electorate at large, polls have found he has kept a strong grounding among the base and there is little reason to think his wife’s backing should hurt Capuano.)

Capuano has also drawn Coakley into a terrain he feels comfortable on: A race to the left, in which he is well-positioned to get the upper-hand due to his flawlessly left-wing congressional record. Coakley announced two weeks ago that she would vote against the health-care bill if it included the Stupak amendment, she just released a statement that sharply criticized Obama’s apparent decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan; Capuano just hit Coakley on issues like her past defense of the Patriot Act.

But that also speaks to the fact that Coakley had the good sense not to simply try to protect her lead (an always risky strategy for a candidate who voters don’t know that well). While her views on most polarizing issues were not known, she chose to clarify them rather than stay above the fray - something front-runners sometimes think they can dispense with. And yet, she does not appear to have committed any unforced error, which could be all she needs to win on December 8th.

As for Steve Pagliuca, the race has remained tight enough that he can hope that his immense fortune will carry him to a plurality victory; he could also be helped by the fact that Coakley and Capuano have devoted most of their attention on attacking each other, which allows him to push under the rug things that should disqualify him in Massachussetts’s Democratic primary - for instance his donations to Mitt Romney’s 1994 senatorial campaign (against Kennedy) and to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.

It’s impossible to tell whether anything will break through the media coverage and shake up the race in the closing days or whether voters will remain unconvinced but stagnant. The Boston Herald, for instance, suggests Capuano was the clear winner of this morning’s online debate, but how many voters will see any footage? There will be two televised debates this week, but how many viewers will tune in? And next week’s primary will most likely determine the general election winner, and yet how many Democrats will show up?

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