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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4 Responses to Unknown Unknowns in Massachusetts Elections

  1. Pingback: Headlines for Thursday, January 10, 2013 » MASSterList

  2. Tim says:

    As of today I am beggining to think the battle of who is appointed interim Senator is actually more important. At first I thought the discussion of Barney Frank including by Frank himself of being appointed interim Senator was relatively harmless. To be fair there are good reasons for Governor Patrick to appoint Frank but there are also good reasons why not to appoint Frank in favor of someone such as outgoing A&F head Jay Gonzalez. However over the course the past few days there clearly seems to be a definate power play on the part of the activist left to force Patrick to appoint Frank. As such I get the sense that the appointment of anyone other than Frank would be a viewed as a betrayal and sellout by Patrick(And the activist left may be right Jay Gonzalez would probably be a MUCH more conservative Senator than Frank and more concerned with the narrow economic interests of Massachusetts than the national Democratic Party).

    As such we may be seeing the first visible cracks of a divide I have suspected for a long time between the national Democratic Party/MA Congressional Delegation on the one hand and the MA State Democratic Party centered on Beacon Hill in terms of political ideology. Perhaps the “Activist” left will move onto to something else or Frank will decide to personally back off but there is definately a possibility for a real sticky situation.

  3. Tim says:

    Here is quote from PCC:

    The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which helped raise money for Democrat Elizabeth Warren during her successful Senate campaign, has launched a new website and online petition.

    The petition points to potential cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and says “we can’t afford to have our other senator be lukewarm.”

    So why would they think our “other” Senator would be lukeworm on the these cuts to programs. Do they no something I don’t. Maybe they do. Jay Gonzalez is the governor’s right hand man in budget issues. I don’t think there is any daylight between the two of them. So why doesn’t the PCCC come right out and say Deval Patrick wants to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and must be stopped and the the leadership of the MA State Legislature i.e. Murray and DiLeo are not real Democrats.


  4. Maurice T. Cunningham says:


    You are way ahead of me on this one so I don’t have much to say. I think the issue of national groups acting to enforce ideological conformity is an interesting one. It has seemed even more prevalent on the conservative side, but perhaps that is a function of the press covering it. For instance, there was a piece in Politico the other day about an anti-tax group going after Senator Mitch McConnell in KY for helping to engineer the fiscal cliff deal.

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