MPR: What Went Wrong for Scott Brown?

Abstract: A look back at the public opinion data available in the Brown v. Warren race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts shows that Brown isn’t necessarily doing badly, but rather Warren isn’t doing as well as she could/should.

Originally published on Mercury Point Research.

With the Brown v. Warren race for U.S. Senate deadlocked for months now, it’s easy to forget how bright the future once looked for the young Senator from Massachusetts. His new D.C. office marked the GOP’s first decisive blow against the Obama Administration and signaled the rise of the Tea Party.

One year later political polls in Massachusetts showed his popularity soaring. As one pollster put it,  “At this point in time he’s going to be tough to beat.” Today with the race tied, it’s fair to ask — what went wrong for Scott Brown?

No, polls are not predictive (nor should they purport to be unless you’re Nate Silver). Rather, they are snapshots of a single moment in time; polaroids in a shoe box. But, flipping back through the stacks of pictures can help us make a bit more sense about where the election stands today.

Let’s start at the start, January 2010. Brown is swept into office during the height of the battle over the Affordable Care Act. After the election about half of all self-identified Brown voters (47%) said they supported him because he was the best candidate for the job. The other half said their support for Brown was a vote against the proposed national health care bill (24%) or a vote against Barack Obama, Martha Coakley or Democrats in general (27%).

Few believed he’d last long. Following the initial shock of Brown’s win – after all he had surged in the polls just days before the election – the common sense held that his victory was a fluke. I mean, it’s Ted Kennedy’s seat, come on!

Now flip ahead, the picture’s dated April 2011. Some 15 months after the special election a majority of Bay State voters (55%) say he deserves to be re-elected. From an objective standpoint, this is a bit weird.

Consider the political environment of spring 2011. Republicans had found little love in Massachusetts in the 2010 midterm elections months earlier. While the GOP wave broke across the rest of the country, not a single member of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation flipped to GOP control. Further, Governor Patrick bested his Republican challenger Charlie Baker by 6 points – an unlikely rebound from a low of just one-third (34%) of voters saying he deserved to be re-elected in 2009.

Clearly (it seemed) the Bay State had patched things up with Democrats. And yet, here’s Brown in April 2011 with 55% of voters saying they’d choose him as their next U.S. Senator over a Democratic candidate (and in head-to-head matchups with Khazei, Capuano et al, he won a majority every time).

And, Brown wasn’t just popular, he was gaining in popularity among Democrats. Pollster David Paleologos notes in The Huffington Post, “In our 2010 February poll, 19% of Democrats reported having voted for Brown. Today, 38% of Democrats said they feel Brown deserves to be reelected.” Shedding some light on this, perhaps, 43% of Democrats also said they agreed that Brown was keeping his promise to be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate.

At this point Warren had yet to enter the race. Still battling Congress for a nomination to the Bureau of Consumer Protection. In the media her name hadn’t even been floated. However, just a few months later her candidacy would change the map – or at least appear to change it.

In September 2011 a release by Public Policy Polling noted “Once one of the most popular senators in the country, a Republican in a blue state, it would have taken a nosedive in public favor for Brown to be beaten.  And that is exactly what has happened.”

Indeed, compared with the picture presented in the Suffolk Poll in April 2011 it appeared that Brown would have fewer parties to attend. Warren’s popularity was picking up sharp, and against the odds, Brown’s mojo seemed incapable of standing up to a liberal lion.

But here’s the catch, it’s not that the numbers haven’t moved much since September 2011 (PPP 2011, PPP 2012: around 44% each), they haven’t really moved  for the last 19 months — since 2010.

Despite Warren’s initial meteoric rise in polls and press, the race remains stuck in 2010. Digging deeper it’s apparent that since then Brown has continued to hold nearly 20% support among registered Democrats. In fact, that’s roughly the same number of registered Democrats who voted for him in January 2010.

For almost a year now Warren has been unable to win back those voters. Contrast this with 2006 when incumbent Ted Kennedy found support from around 20% of registered Republicans in October, and won the seat with 67% of the vote in November.

Is this the beginning of a shift in the Massachusetts electorate or is it business as usual? After all, before Deval Patrick the Commonwealth had nearly two decades of GOP governors.

It may be the latter. Suffolk’s May survey asked “Currently Massachusetts has one Democratic Senator (John Kerry) and one Republican Senator (Scott Brown). Do you think that there is a benefit by having one Democratic and one Republican U.S. Senator representing Massachusetts in Washington?” Among Democrats 40% said yes.

To answer the question we began with, what has gone wrong for Brown? In truth, not much. Brown might not be outpacing Warren by large margins, and she’s performed markedly better than Democrats tested a little over a year ago, and yet things aren’t all that different from where they stood in 2010 — especially among Democrats.

The real question might be, what hasn’t gone right for Warren?

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