Scott Brown’s 2010 victory and Elizabeth Warren’s victory last month were due primarily to factors unrelated to either of their campaigns. The fundamentals of both races pointed clearly to the eventual result. The difference is that in 2010 no one was looking at the fundamentals, while in 2012 at least one political scientist you know and love called the race ten months before Election Day by learning the lesson of 2010 and applying it.
Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable for Bay State Republicans to believe that Scott Brown’s 2010 victory and brief incumbency improve their party’s prospects in a potential “special” election next year. I believe it is reasonable to see those chances as having improved from extremely remote to simply poor. Interestingly, I don’t think Scott Brown would be the party’s strongest candidate, nor do I think he would escape a primary challenge, but my purpose in this post is to reflect on what would have to happen to facilitate a Republican victory in a race to replace John Kerry.
Much has been made of the usefulness of low voter turnout to Republican candidates and for good reason. There are pretty clear correlations between the profiles of those most likely to turnout in special elections and those who lean Republican. However, there are three reasons why expected low turn out is unlikely to favor Republicans in a 2013 special election in Massachusetts.
First, the turn out in Brown’s 2010 special election was an anomaly that will not be replicated. On that cold, wet January day Republican turnout was artificially high due to the momentum and actual GOTV efforts of those associated with the Tea Party movement, who were literally on a mission to stop “Obamacare.” Second, Democratic turnout was artificially low due to a conscious decision by Bay State progressives to send President Obama a signal about their own disappointment with his health care reform bill. Brown’s election itself, as well as a thoroughly different national mood in 2013 will be more than enough to insure that the state’s progressives do not sit on their hands again during a “special” election. The third reason Republicans’ chances remain slim is that enough of the structural advantages enjoyed by Democrats in the state’s elections will be firmly in place for any 2013 special election, including the Democratic Party’s three-to-one party registration advantage as well as its huge advantage in campaign infrastructure. The state’s Democratic Committee just re-elected its chairman with prejudice after one of the most successful and innovative coordinated campaigns in history, while the Mass G.O.P. remains in pitiful disarray.
The drivers of statewide elections in Massachusetts are not good copy for the pundits and the press, nor are they useful to pollsters who want to get their contributions to the horse race media coverage noticed. Even the candidates prefer to downplay these structural factors in their efforts to generate and maintain voter enthusiasm and campaign fundraising. These structural factors are, however, knowable, relatively stable, and very reliable indicators of election outcomes in statewide elections.
To win, Republicans would have to engineer extreme dissatisfaction among Moderate Democrats and progressives in the state in hopes of depressing turnout, while simultaneously engineering extreme enthusiasm among Conservative and moderate Bay State voters, sufficient to bring them out in numbers that will have to exceed those of Brown’s 2010 Election. It is very hard to imagine what could unite, in sufficient numbers, conservative and moderate voters or alienate Democratic constituencies from the party’s U.S. Senate nominee. Brown’s effort to make a virtue of bipartisanship will not work. Polarization is real and impacts most voters, especially the ones sufficiently motivated to participate in a special election.
While it is impossible to call a 2013 special U.S. Senate race before the candidate field is clear, it is not only possible to declare the Democratic nominee as the odds on favorite, it is foolish to expect anything else.