Massachusetts by-election 2010

The special election for the US Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy was held yesterday, January 19. The Senate special election in a normally very safe Democratic state attracted national attention when polls showed that the Republicans were closing in on the seat and even leading the Democrats. I covered the candidates, the issues and other stuff in an election preview post.

Here are the results:

Scott Brown (R) 51.9%
Martha Coakley (D) 47.1%
Joseph Kennedy (L) 1.0%

Turnout was 54-55% or so, quite high for a special election. This makes the patterns in this election more notable and noteworthy than those in regular special elections with very low turnout. A lesson is to be learned here, to an extent.

Undoubtedly, a shocking Republican victory in such a Democratic state and a seat which has elected Democrats since 1953 and two Kennedys. Beyond the symbolism, this becomes the ’41st’ Republican seat, as Brown and his supporters made very clear last night. This is significant because it ends the Democrats’ filibuster-proof 60-seat majority. This allows Republicans to block Obama’s health-care reform in the Senate, which they are very likely to do.

The election has undoubtedly sent shock waves down the spines of many Democrats facing voters in November. What caused Coakley’s defeat and Brown’s underdog victory? Firstly, the candidate. Coakley won the primary in December and came out with a 20-point lead or so, but then went MIA and returned only when the polls showed that her lead had been cut from 20 points to a tie or a deficit of 1-5 points. The Democrats frantically tried to do anything they could, getting Obama and all the bigwigs to stump for Coakley. Coakley was undeniably a bad candidate with little charisma and campaigning abilities. While she was MIA, Scott Brown was actively fundraising and hitting the ground with positive and powerful ads. He put his name on the map, and his more populist campaigning style appealed to a number of voters.

Who were these voters? The map shows that Brown destroyed Coakley in traditionally centrist and affluent suburbs (as opposed to liberal affluent suburbs). Most voters here are independents, a group which forms around 50% of voters in the state, and oppose the administrations’ spending policies and high taxes – economy was a major point in Brown’s platform. In addition, Democrats lost the most (compared to 2008) in white working-class areas, notably old mill towns. Lowell, a name which immediately reminds one of the early industrial era which started in Massachusetts, narrowly voted for Brown. The towns in which Democrats lost the most grounds have an unemployment rate higher than the state as a whole. At the same time, reliably Democratic voters, notably minority voters, stayed home in larger numbers. What is worrying for Democrats is that these patterns were seen in the 2009 elections in New Jersey, Virginia and parts of New York.

On the other hand, Democrats held their ground better in the Berkshires (rural sparsely populated areas in the west of the state which are similar demographically to Vermont), college towns and rich liberal areas. Voters in these areas are more supportive of Obama and have less beef with the administration’s economic and healthcare policies.

The New York Times have an interesting set of maps. A comparison with the map of Romney’s 2002 victory is particularly interesting, showing that Brown appealed more than Romney to working-class voters but Romney performed better in Boston’s suburbs than Brown did last night.

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Posted on January 21, 2010, in Massachusetts, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’m sure that the Democrats will take great comfort from having done well in the bita which were like Vermont.

    On a more serious note, the comparison with Romney is interesting, as is the comparison with Celluci and with Weld. If one discounts Weld’s second, blowout, victory, the four Republians to win statewide in Massachusetts in the last 20 years all did so by assembling different coallitions.

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