After LegoLand

Massachusetts Democrats, at least the progressive kind, continue to await Elizabeth Warren’s decision on a run against Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown. Much of the Democratic elite consider Brown unbeatable, a topic I wrote about in April in Hugs for Democrats – CommonWealth Magazine. So how might Elizabeth Warren, who pondered her next step while on a visit to LegoLand with her grandchild, be expected to fare against Brown?

She’d unquestionably be an articulate voice on economic and consumer policies against Brown, who has the standard Republican positions. She’s been toughened by her DC experience and those who know her say she has a common touch one doesn’t usually associate with a Harvard professor. She is also said to be able to raise the money needed to compete.

Of course we don’t know if she would be an effective campaigner, or be able to raise money. She’s never done either.

So I looked up a few studies on challengers to U.S. senate incumbents that focus upon challenger quality. This usually means the challenger has held or is holding a political office, or can raise money. The first influences the ability to do the second. Peverill Squire and Eric R.A.N. Smith in “A Further Examination of Challenger Quality in Senate Elections” focus on challenger quality and campaign skills. Challenger quality has two components: challenger profile and challenger skills. Prominence means both the office held by the challenger and how visible it would be to voters in a senate election. Skill involves candidate appeal, eloquence, excitement, ability to manage the campaign wisely, and even physical attraction.

David Lublin found in “Quality, Not Quantity: Strategic Politicians in U.S. Senate Elections, 1952-1990” that U.S. representatives do significantly better than do other challengers; even governors do not perform as well. As Lublin says in explaining the superiority of challengers who hold U.S. house seats, “Federal legislators and state executive officials have quite different responsibilities and often contend with somewhat different types of issues and constituency groups. U.S. representatives may also have greater access to Washington campaign donors based on past contacts. Voters may perceive state and federal offices as requiring different sets of personal and political skills.”

All the studies I looked at conclude that a candidate with no experience in winning and holding political office performs the most poorly against an incumbent senator. But studies show that a quality challenger should emerge in a state where the non-incumbent party has a lot of quality officeholders, even if the incumbent senator appears formidable. That is because senate seats come up only every six years and if your party already holds one of the seats the chance to move up does not come along often.

So what might all this mean for Warren? Obviously the swooning in progressive Democratic circles over Warren could be overdone. It is very difficult for someone who has never run and won a political office to pivot into a successful senate challenge. Jousting with Republican senators in a hearing room might not be adequate preparation for campaign debates, never mind acquiring the appropriate demeanor for attending the Blessing of the Fleet in Gloucester or dropping in at the Ludlow Rotary Club meeting. Warren has never held political office, so that challenger quality variable cuts against her. She may be known to Beltway insiders, but she is not well known in Massachusetts. If she can raise money as her supporters hope, that would be significant. Diddy was mostly right – “It’s All About the Benjamins.”

There is one other matter that puzzles me about the Warren boomlet. On the day of the special senate election the AFL-CIO commissioned a poll to find out what had gone so wrong for the Democrats. The pollster concluded that “this was a working class revolt.” Martha Coakley had won narrowly among college voters but had been beaten by twenty points with non-college graduates. So how does nominating a Harvard law professor help with that group? (I’ll probably quarrel some other day with the definition of working class based on education level, but it is a commonly accepted definition).

Why hasn’t one of the Democratic representatives or a statewide elected official seized the moment? Well, studies also show that professional politicians are strategic – if they hold a safe seat, why risk it against a strong senate incumbent? Things are even more complicated because Massachusetts is losing one seat in Congress, and if Senator John Kerry should be elevated to Secretary of State, it might be easier to win a special election for that seat. Still, in a state with so many strong Democrats, we might expect one to take a chance against Brown.

The best candidate for the Democrats would still likely be a member of the U.S. House. I made the argument in “Hugs for Democrats” that there is every good reason for a quality candidate to defy the conventional wisdom of Senator Brown’s electoral impregnability. A congressperson would be best positioned to take advantage. That doesn’t mean we won’t be swearing in Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2012, just that she might not be the strongest candidate.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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