Unknown Unknowns in Massachusetts Elections

On Tuesday in Senate Special: Do We Know the Known-Knowns? I recounted how the Democrats had no candidate against the unbeatable Senator Scott Brown until the Republicans obliged by refusing to confirm Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Board. I called that act of political charity a “random act of kindness.” I purposely chose the word random.

I chose random for much the same reason I continue to marvel at the Scott Brown victory in 2010. When he woke up on January 5, 2010 he appeared to be an obscure Republican slogging through the last two weeks against the Democratic machine. But that day Rasmussen released a poll showing him trailing Attorney General Martha Coakley by nine points. For the next two weeks irrational exuberance in the electorate and rock star treatment by the press elevated the formerly nondescript state senator into a political icon.

You can look at the 2010 upset and be amazed at how the stardom of Scott Brown had been overlooked for so long. Or you can be in awe of the Democratic machine’s capacity to brush Brown aside in 2012. But I tend to think there was a lot of luck involved in both years.

Of course the Republican senators’ mistreatment of Warren wasn’t random – they got the intended result (at least temporarily), which was to protect Wall Street from Warren. I suppose they figured Warren would head back to Cambridge to resume indoctrinating Harvard law students into the international socialist conspiracy. The Republicans knew that every ambitious careerist Democratic elected official was ducking Brown. He was not only the guy who had won the Kennedy seat; he was going to retain it in the bluest state without a serious challenge.


Coakley may not have been a reincarnation of James Michael Curley on the stump, but she did lead Brown by nine points inside of two weeks. (What percentage of politicians lose when up by nine with two weeks to go?) She was caught up in some combination of abandonment by the Democratic base of low income and minority voters and widespread disaffection with the performance of President Barack Obama and the Democrats on jobs and the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

Bad timing, Martha; couldn’t be helped.

Remember 1990 when Democrat Frank Bellotti led John Silber by 54-31 the Thursday before the primary and lost to Silber by nine points?

Or ask Governor Michael Dukakis about leading Ed King in the polls by forty points in 1978.

Such unknown-unknowns make a huge impact but our minds are ingenious machines for convincing us that the unpredictable had been foreseeable all along (and that we had seen it).  As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, “our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness.”

Unknown-unknowns happen. Sometimes they get elected governor, or US senator.


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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