Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's All Over But The Shouting

It's over. Martha Coakley, the Democratic Attorney General of Massachusetts, lost to Scott Brown, her Republican opponent in the special election to determine who will be the U.S. Senator from that state for the next two years:

Scott Brown, a truck-driving National Guardsman who was virtually unknown even in Massachusetts a few weeks ago, beat Martha Coakley, the state attorney-general who had expected to inherit the seat, by 52% to 47%.

Brown, in his victory speech, referred to one of the decisive moments of the campaign, when in a debate Coakley had referred to 'Ted Kennedy's seat'. Brown said: "This Senate seat belongs to no one person, to no political party. . . . This is the people's seat."

Republicans take Ted Kennedy's seat in dramatic political upset

As I wrote earlier today, we can expect the recriminations to start in earnest now. Brown's analysis of his victory is one that I think we can safely discard. I may be overestimating the intelligence of the average voter again, but when we're involved in two wars, worried about an economy that's hemorrhaging jobs every month, and wondering if we're ever going to see health care reform, I think they could afford to ignore the fact that a politician would refer to a Senate seat by the name of the person who occupied it for 46 years.

Other "analysts" are offering up all sorts of reasons why Coakley lost. To help understand this election, it's important to look at the Pollster chart for the race:
Image credit: Pollster

Things were going great for Martha Coakley (blue line) until the end of 2009. What happened during that time? Politico's Ben Smith published a letter he received from an anonymous Coakley adviser the day before the election:

— Coakley's lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas and after the Christmas Eve "bombing" incident. Polling showed significant concerns with the actions of Senator Nelson to hold out for a better deal. Senator Nelson's actions specifically hurt Coakley who was forced to backtrack on her opposition to the abortion restriction amendment.

Coakley Adviser Memo: D.C. Dems 'Failed' Coakley

There were a number of other points, and someone interested in the sort of political infighting that often goes on during a campaign would do well to read it, I suppose. This item is the one that is actually correlated with the turn of Coakley's fortunes.

Did this cause Coakley to lose more than twenty points inside of three weeks? Probably not. Naturally, this sort of time correlation is fraught with potential error. After all, it was also the Christmas and New Year's holiday week. Few people think about politics then. Some voters didn't make up their mind until later. Based on polls during the Fall, that looked to be something like ten percent of voters. People also got to see Brown more on television, and he is apparently an engaging personality.

Still, none of those other things explain such a fall. A few points, maybe ten, but more than twenty? That's why I think the health care bill, particularly the Nelson amendment that disallows abortion payments by insurance plans that are federally subsidized, explains Coakley's defeat as much as any single cause. Considering that women represent one of the Democratic Party's key constituencies, this was a phenomenally stupid thing for the Senate to pass. But it did,and then it passed the health care bill, which had no public option but an individual mandate for insurance, before leaving town Christmas Eve.

There's another possible explanation for the fall, too, as Coakley pollster Celinda Lake explains:

Lake pointed to polling released by the Economic Policy Institute showing that 65 percent of Americans thought the stimulus served banks interests, 56 percent thought it served corporations and only ten percent that it benefited them. "That is a formula for failure for the Democrats. We have to deliver on economic policies that take on Wall Street and we have to do it for five months, not just five days. We really have to deliver on the policies," she said.
Michael Dimock, associate director with The Pew Research Center, said he's seen the movement that Lake's referring to in his organization's polling. "People are really bummed about what's going on economically...Obama and the Democrats own what's going on," he said. "Independents, almost by definition, they're not driven by ideology, they're effected by current circumstances and right now current circumstances suck. We're stuck in two wars; the economy's terrible; Washington looks like a train wreck more than ever before."

Lake said that in the end, the race was going to be close even if perfectly run. "I think this was going to be a close race no matter what, honestly. Maybe we could have pulled it out, because we could have gotten Scott Brown defined earlier and we would have had money for tracking, which we didn't have," she said. "But I think this wave was coming."

Coakley Pollster Defends Campaign Against White House

It's not entirely clear to me how much effect the economy would have had. It certainly didn't help. But there aren't any events that jump out at me from the end of December or early January that would suggest they were the trigger. The economy was bad when Coakley had a twenty point lead. Why would that suddenly be a problem? The only explanation I can think of is that January is often a time when people start looking for jobs or houses, or to make other changes in their lives related to the economy. That might have been when reality hit home. Or it could have been that there was just one bit of bad news too many on that front.

The wave Lake is referring to is the wave of Democratic defeats that have happened recently. The governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey last November were something that the White House loudly blamed on the Democratic candidates. Jane Hamsher noticed that pattern, too:

Cue the Boy Band Apologists who conclude that it’s All Coakley’s Fault, based on the whisperings of little more than their fellow members of the Boy Band. Just like [Virginia governor candidate] Creigh Deeds was a bad candidate. And [New Jersey Governor] Jon Corzine was too. And FDL destroyed [Arkansas U.S. Rep.] Vic Snyder with the very first 600 call “push poll” (most others take 80,000 or 100,000 calls to move public opinion in a single congressional district, who knew all it took was a few hundred).

Classy: DNC Throws Martha Coakley Under the Bus

Eventually, these excuses are going to wear thin, but the Democrats show little sign of comprehending yet. The obvious conclusion that their dismal handling of the economy, and their even more dismal handling of the psychology of the economy, coupled with their march toward the bottom on health care reform, ought to be clear danger signs to any politician who even pretends to be a professional.

What the White House offers is a litany of largely nonsensical accusations:

[I]n private conversations, Hill sources say White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has blamed Coakley, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake for failing to see Brown’s surge in time to stop it.

Finger-pointing Begins For Democratic Insiders

If you'll recall from the chart I showed earlier, there clearly wasn't much time to spot a surge, much less do something about it. And related as that surge appeared to be to events beyond Coakley's control, there probably wasn't much she could do about it aside from disavowing support for the health care bill or other unpopular Democratic policies. Given that Coakley was still trying to get campaign cash from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee (now chaired by Obama ally Tim Kaine), that might have left her with no financial support. As the anonymous Coakley adviser writes:

— Coakley's failure to release television advertisements until 12 days before the election was the result of a fundraising problem that national Democrats failed to resolve. Meanwhile, right-wing groups pumped significant amounts of money into Brown’s campaign, allowing him to go up with ads first, including negative attack ads funded by the Swift Boat and Willie Horton groups.

Coakley Adviser Memo: D.C. Dems 'Failed' Coakley

In that article in the Huffington Post, Celinda Lake is quoted as mentioning this problem as well:

But if party leaders wanted to point fingers, they should remember that they made tactical mistakes, too, she said. Lake argued that the underfunded campaign didn't have money for tracking polls, and so didn't see Republican Scott Brown's comeback until it was well underway. The campaign also didn't have money, she said, for television ads that could have shaped a populist message and defined her opponent as a friend of Wall Street. The party establishment didn't back the campaign with significant resources until the closing days of the campaign.

Coakley Pollster Defends Campaign Against White House

The excuses from the Democratic leadership got even more feeble today. Ben Smith quotes a couple of anonymous "national politicians":

Another senior Democrat said he'd been stunned to arrive in the state to learn that Coakley had done no advertising in the African-American or Hispanic media, and "no outreach."
"The campaign found out about polling troubles from [Public Policy Polling] on January 8 or January 9," said the official. "National Dems (DNC, OfA, DSCC) [were] on the ground by that Monday."

Coakley Called Machine, Didn't Use Machine

The first sounds silly on its face - are we meant to believe that the Latino community suddenly lost interest? The polls show a precipitous drop in interest in Coakley, not a sudden loss of interest in voting.

The second paragraph would seem to be contradicted by this statement by a (possibly different) anonymous Democratic official, referring to the memo by the Coakley adviser:

This memo is a pack full of lies and fantasies — The DNC and the DSCC did everything they were asked and have been involved in the race for several weeks, not just the last one.

Democratic Party responds to Coakley memo: 'Political malpractice'

Apparently, they were there, but just not on the ground.

While the recriminations back and forth will no doubt be a fascinating psychological case study at some point in the future, for now I think we can assume that while Coakley made some mistakes, possibly even some big ones, she didn't lose that lead on her own. She had help from DC, and it wasn't the help that was on the ground on January 8th.

Afterword: The shouting still hasn't died down, but that hasn't stopped the Democrats from trying to compound their error, now that they've lost the 60th Senator:

Even before polls closed, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said "there are options to still pursue health care."

Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, outlined a combination of tactics to get what his party wants out of health care reform.

First, he said the House could simply approve the Senate bill, sending it straight to President Obama's desk.

Then, Durbin said, the Senate could make changes to the bill by using the nuclear option, known formally as "reconciliation," a tactic that would allow Democrats to adjust parts of health care reform with just a 51-vote majority.

Top Senate Democrat Outlines 'Nuclear Option' Strategy for Health Care

House Democrats have largely rejected this idea for now, but I'm sure they'll fold later. It's what they do.

With that in mind Ian Welsh has made some gloomy predictions about how things will go from now through 2016. As I told him, the only one I wasn't sure of was the first, which is what Durbin seems to be proposing now. It looks like we're on our way.

For my part, I have mixed feelings. I'm glad the Democrats have finally been shown that they can't count on progressives no matter what they do, and that there is no reason that they can't fall as quickly as they rose. Still, it's a shame that Coakley couldn't have spoken out about what she must have known to be bad policy. That failure probably cost her the election.


One Fly said...

May as well get used to it as there more a hummin.

Cujo359 said...

It's not over, by any means. If Democratic leadership doesn't wise up in the next few months, then they will find themselves out of the majority in at least one house of congress, and out of the White House in 2012.