Scott Brown: Alive and Kicking

As we endure the idle weeks until the next election with speculation about who would succeed Senator John Kerry should he move to a Cabinet post, the prospects of once and perhaps future Senator Scott Brown is a subject of conjecture. Robert Kuttner fears a Brown return; yesterday my colleague Professor Ubertaccio set forth reasons for Kuttner to remove his finger from the panic button. I largely agree with Professor Ubertaccio but want to set out some arguments for Senator Brown’s continuing political vitality.  

The 2012 exit poll shows that Brown won men 53%-47% but lost women 59%-41%, and women were 53% of the vote. But Brown was very competitive for women’s support earlier in the race. As the first woman in state history to be elected to the U.S. Senate, Warren was uniquely able to turn women’s issues to her advantage, especially with the double whammy of tying those issues to the national Republican Party. In a special election Brown won’t have Todd Akin and Richard Mourdoch making idiotic comments about rape in other senate races, and the argument that a Brown win could turn the Senate Republican will lack currency as well. He needs to have coherent positions that appeal to women though; emphasizing that his spouse and children happen to be female isn’t enough.

Brown won white men by 58%-42% and lost white women by 45%-55%. He lost badly among African-American voters (and Latino and Asian-Americans too, though those samples were too small to analyze). Hmmmmmmmm, looks like the national Republican profile alright. He can’t win that way.

But he may be able to take a greater share of the Democratic vote. He got only 11% of Democrats but could do better in a less nationalized race and with Barack Obama off the ballot. In the 2012 exit poll President Obama was viewed favorably in Massachusetts by 63%-36%, Romney unfavorably by 40%-57%. Brown won’t have to drag Romney and the national Republican Party around his ankles in the next race. He won Independents by 59%-41% and they are the largest voting group in the state.

Brown also lost high school graduates and less in 2012 (16% of the vote) by 55%-45%. But he won that cohort by 20 points in 2010 in a race the pollster for the AFL-CIO termed “a working class revolt.” In fact Republicans often take this vote. Obama has done very well with this group but Deval Patrick has not.

Professor Ubertaccio had a number of telling points yesterday and here is one I find especially compelling:

Brown, recognizing the handicap of his own party early on, campaigned as a person who bucks the party and encouraged his fellow citizens to vote the person and not the party. But he was never able to connect his self-vaunted independence to any issue or set of issues that voters here are passionate about. Voters don’t care about bipartisanship or independence in a vacuum. The bipartisanship must be tied to something that resonates loudly and moves voters.

True. Brown spent too much time playing Trivial Pursuit and not identifying himself with an issue that people care about. In 2010 he cast himself with resistance to Obamacare. The specific issue probably wasn’t decisive but he had a strong identification in opposition to the president and the country’s poor economic performance damaged Obama and the Democrats even here in the bluest state. Those conditions are not likely to replicate, but we have no way of knowing what conditions might look like later in 2013.

There isn’t much Brown can do about the fundamentals Prof. Duquette has ably explained provide such an overwhelming advantage to Democrats in this state. The Republicans are a sliver of a minority and quiver in the face of the Democrats’ organizational strength. The national GOP is a cancer (maybe too weak a metaphor) to a Massachusetts Republican candidate.

But perhaps the Democrats have an intra-party donnybrook and nominate a candidate whose reason for running is “it’s my turn!”  Elizabeth Warren is not walking through that door fans. Scott Brown ran a tough race against a formidable opponent in a year that could not have gone more Democratic (welcome back to Congress, Rep. Tierney).

Much of the structure of the next race will come from factors Brown can’t impact, but perhaps as in 2010 the “unknown unknowns” break his way. He’d enter a special election as an underdog against the “Democratic machine.” He does well in that role. We tend to underweight fundamental factors that account for most of the partisan vote distribution and overweight campaign factors such as likability or appealing television ads. To the extent that campaigns are a factor in outcomes, Brown remains a resourceful and popular politician.

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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