The “Poll Position” in the MA Senate Race

I’m not a car racing fan, but I presume that the so-called “poll position” offers some advantage to its awardee. Frequently, the same cannot be said of political candidates with strong polling numbers. Indeed, the very first line of the WBUR story about the latest poll results in the ongoing “special” US Senate election in Massachusetts seemed to be making this very point. In fact, the author explicitly characterized the race as “wide open on both the Democratic and the Republican sides.”

“Wide open!?!” Not really.

If the media wants us to believe that (despite everything we know) the outcome of this race on Election Day in June is highly uncertain, then I’m afraid I’ll have to throw the BS flag. This is classic horse race coverage, but this race aint going to be decided by the horses on the track. It will be decided by the political and institutional context of the office being sought. Veteran reporters and pundits know this perfectly well, but cannot help but hype.

In this case, the “hype” rests on the percentage of poll respondents who claim to be undecided on or uninformed about this contest. Since these percentages are as great, or greater, than the lead Markey is calculated to have on Lynch, as well as the leads both Democrats appear to have on any of the Republican candidates, we are supposed to believe that this thing is “wide open” or that “anything could happen.” The former characterization is silly, while the latter at least has the virtue of being possible.

The preferences of the Massachusetts general electorate are NOT mysterious, nor are they being transformed by the candidates’ campaign efforts. A more honest and potentially accurate characterization of this contest at present would be to say that so far there is no reason to doubt that Ed Markey will be the next Senator from Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, the National Review’s Jack Fowler sees the race a bit differently. He argues that the Democratic race as more “wide open” than the Republican contest because of Lynch’s higher “likeability” numbers. His analysis of the Republican contest is more reasonable. He sees it as Sullivan’s to lose at this point.

In truth, the state of the race for the Republican nomination is less clear than the Democratic race at this point. The latest poll results do not, it seems to me, show that the Republican contest is “wide open.” While all the Republican candidates are trying to position themselves as Capitol Hill “outsiders” to one extent or another, and while considerable energy and resources are flowing to the political novice in this race, this new poll illustrates the advantages of political experience and conventional partisanship.

The most experienced politician, Mike Sullivan, enjoys an 18-20 point lead over his fellow Republican candidates among likely primary voters registering a preference in this poll. We are encouraged to believe (as are Winslow and Gomez) that since 46% of likely Republican primary voters either don’t know who they will support or refused to say, there is plenty of time and room for this race to tighten. This is, of course, “true,” but not as true as the characterization “wide open” implies.

What the pundits aren’t saying about this high percentage of “likely” voters not yet unaccounted for is that there is no good reason to expect that they are really “up for grabs.” Primary voters are the least likely voters to be motivated or moved by candidates, or campaign rhetoric. They are the partisans that care most about the connection between the office being sought and their party’s political and/or policy leverage. All three candidates are presently jockeying for the support of “undecided” partisans, while positioning themselves to be attractive to the mythical “swing” voters in June, but the plurality of folks who will enter the polling booths in the Republican primary election will be supporting the candidate who they believe will be the most faithful REPUBLICAN senator, not the candidate who seems the most “independent” or the least amenable to “politics as usual.”

Michael Sullivan and Dan Winslow are the candidates most in line with the political and policy preferences of Republican primary voters in Massachusetts. Gabe Gomez’s best chance of winning the party nod rests on the possibility that Sullivan and Winslow will split the bulk of the committed Republican vote on primary Election Day. I’m sure Gomez’s advisors are as disappointed by the size of Sullivan’s lead over Winslow as they are about their own candidate’s third place showing.

On June 25th, however, whether Ed Markey or Stephen Lynch is facing a fellow pol (Sullivan or Winslow) or an anti-politics populist (Gomez), the voters of Massachusetts will NOT be inclined to send congressional Republicans anyone who might provide them with aid and comfort in their battle against President Obama, and the idea that the candidates and/or local concerns (rather than the ongoing partisan battle in DC) will dominate this election contest is a pipe dream.

With this in mind, I think we can say that the Republican candidate who would be best positioned to exploit that rarest of campaign events, the “game changer,” is probably Gomez because of his more credible claims to non-partisan motives and distain for politics as usual. Ironically, because of his anti-establishment and anti-party rhetoric and the very slim chance of a “game changing” screw up by the Democratic nominee prior to June 25th Gomez is also probably the best choice for the RNC and congressional Republicans.

The best nominee for the Mass GOPs ability to increase its influence in state politics, on the other hand, would clearly be Sullivan or Winslow, who -even in defeat- could provide credible state party leadership going forward. I can’t help but wonder if recently revealed connections between the Scott Brown and Michael Sullivan campaigns, combined with the election of a Brown confidant to the Mass GOP Chair, signal a long overdue effort by high profile Bay State Republicans to begin seriously investing in the future of their party’s grass roots organization in the state. Wishful thinking? Probably.

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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