Known-Unknowns in the Special Senate Election

Recently I’ve enjoyed writing about known-knowns and unknown-unknowns as they might influence the coming special senate election for John Kerry’s seat. Today I’m thinking about known-unknowns – the things we know we don’t know. I don’t guarantee any of these speculations will actually happen either; I’m a political scientist, not Jean Dixon.

We know John Kerry should be easily confirmed as Secretary of State and we’ll have a special election. We know that Ed Markey will be one candidate and we don’t know if anyone else will run. So we know we don’t know what the field will be but on the Democratic side there is speculation that two other congressmen, Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch, might enter the race. On the Republican side the most likely candidate is Scott Brown.

Professor Duquette thinks that a contested Democratic primary might be good for the ultimate nominee. I’m not so sure (in part because I always teach a journal article Professor Duquette wrote about the 2002 gubernatorial election and the difficulties a hard-fought primary campaign brought Shannon O’Brien in her losing effort against Mitt Romney). One of the expectations in Massachusetts is that statewide the Democrat will always win absent a scandal or split within the party (as happened to John Silber, Scott Harshbarger, Shannon O’Brien); or of course the unpredictable occurrence of a Black Swan/unknown-unknown (as happened to Martha Coakley).

Scandals don’t tend to happen to state-wide candidates so the biggest problem is a divided party. Elizabeth Warren avoided the problem by vanquishing the last of the pretenders at the party convention.

But we know there are unknowns if Congressman Markey is challenged in a Democratic primary. The Democratic establishment is laboring to anoint him in hopes everyone will fall into place against Scott Brown, he of the 60% approval rating even when being beaten by eight points by Senator Warren. The Democratic establishment is potent but not omnipotent. So let’s say that the Democratic primary is a close contest between progressive Manager Markey and the more conservative Worker Lynch. And for fun let’s figure there is another spirited progressive in the campaign who batters Markey from the left.

Markey emerges from the primary but the progressive purists loyal to his challenger from the left feel no excitement for him and turnout in highly educated liberal enclaves lags in the general. Lynch’s supporters among the dwindling worker wing of Democrats are even less enthused about the congressman from Malden. Lower educated voters who voted for Brown in 2010 and Warren in 2012 return to the former senator as do the union members who voted for him in 2010.  Lower income voters don’t identify with Markey’s environmentalism and the economy dips, suppressing their turnout.

Or Lynch wins the primary and progressives abandon him. Recall that in 2010 the progressive arbiter supported a Democratic challenger for Lynch’s congressional seat. Liberals have little use for Lynch because he is pro-life and voted against The Affordable Care Act. Lynch can out-pickup-truck Brown but on the other side Massachusetts Citizens for Life finally does Scott Brown a favor – they endorse Lynch, on the plausible basis that Brown is more liberal on abortion. The progressive wing reasons that it would be harder in 2014 to take out Lynch in a primary than Brown in a general and commits its energy to a liberal hopeful two years hence.

Why do I focus these ruminations on the Democrats and not the Republicans? Because any sniffle to the GOP in this state is a full-blown case of respiratory failure. It is the Democrats who have more control of their own fate and thus need to worry more about known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns.

WYSIATI; as Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow. What you see is all there is. In other words the foregoing is entirely based on known-knowns and some but not all known-unknowns I think I see. I’ve no doubt ignored known-unknowns that aren’t on my mind right now. And I’ve entirely ignored (because I really can’t see them) the real unknown-unknowns that may impact the special senate election. Or not.



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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