Popular recognition of the role of “context.” Better late than never?

The present handwringing among Massachusetts Republicans regarding the refusal of all the party’s A-listers to run for John Kerry’s vacated US Senate seat in the upcoming special election seems to represent something of a reality check for them. It also appears to be an opportunity for the political media to present the story of Scott Brown’s meteoric rise and fall in a more reasonable context; a context that the chattering class heretofore refused to acknowledge or appreciate; a context in which “the context” was the driving force of events, not the candidates or any measurable changes in the views or preferences of the state’s voters.

Stephanie Ebberts’ Globe article “Activists say Republicans can do well in Senate race” implies that the reason the big names are demurring here is that they see the writing on the wall. They realize that the larger political context in both the state and nation is not conducive to a successful Republican effort in the upcoming special election. No surprise there, except that this seemingly conventional political analysis of the 2013 special election field implies that virtually all of the political post-game analysis of the 2010 special US Senate election and the 2012 contest between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren was essentially WRONG.

The larger political/institutional context of the 2010 special election strongly favored the Republican candidate. The larger political/ institutional context of the 2012 Massachusetts US Senate election strongly favored the Democratic candidate. Why has it taken the acknowledgment of big name Republican politicians for the media analysts to realize that the larger political/ institutional context of the 2013 special US Senate election strongly favors the Democratic nominee?

This acknowledgment of context belies the consistent narrative dominating media commentary about the so-called “Scott Brown Era” in Massachusetts politics to date? Until now, the pundits, pols, pollsters, and even many of the professors, have focused on the quality of the candidates (Brown, Coakley, and Warren) as well as apparent changes in the views of the state’s electorate.

We here at masspoliticsprofs, however, have consistently explained the primary importance of the larger political context (and the relative insignificance of the candidate-centered and changing electorate story lines) to the outcomes of both Brown’s upset victory in 2010 and his subsequent defeat in 2012.

Apparently, an explanation of elections that downplays the significance of candidates and of voters as rational consumers ready to give their support to “the best candidate” cannot break through unless or until it is confirmed by politicians themselves managing their political capital “rationally.” The matter of fact, almost incidental, way in which the Globe story cited here explains the political calculations of Brown, Weld, Healy, and others disguises the degree to which the reigning conventional wisdom is being discarded.

Until real live politicians started behaving in a way that confirmed the impact of the state and national political narrative on Massachusetts US Senate elections (special and otherwise)over the last three years, the media generated conventional wisdom about these elections has been that Bay State voters are not as liberal/Democratic as you think and/or that Scott Brown won over a significant segment of the state’s “swing voters” with his personal appeal and his anti-partisan, moderate message.

Scott Brown was NOT elected in 2010 because of a real Republican insurgency in Massachusetts or because of his personal profile or prowess on the campaign trail. He was elected because the dynamics of that “special” election were indeed special (I.e. unusual and temporary). As we embark on a second special election for a US Senate seat in Massachusetts only three years later, the decisions of the state’s most electable Republicans to forego the opportunity to take advantage of another special election provides powerful evidence that they now realize just how very “special” the 2010 race was and that Brown’s win was about the larger political/ institutional context, not about a changing electorate or a brilliant candidacy and campaign.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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