Gomez, Winslow, & Lynch made a bad bet

Three out of the five candidates running for John Kerry’s vacated US Senate seat have pinned their electoral hopes on a flawed theory of the election, namely that their are enough potential voters in this race who want to vote for a candidate that is willing to buck his political party’s establishment and to exercise “independent” judgment in the senate to cobble together a winning coalition. Gabriel Gomez, Dan Winslow, and Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch have all staked their electoral chances on this theory.

Why do these candidates think that their anti-party establishment campaigns are viable? Each of them has decided to embrace a theory about the Bay State electorate that became popular among supporters of Scott Brown’s failed 2012 re-election campaign. The theory is as follows: the only reason Brown’s anti-party establishment, independent thinker campaign fell short in 2012 was that Warren benefited from President Obama’s considerable coattails at the polls. If this is true, then Brown’s campaign strategy remains a winner in Bay State contests where the Democratic nominee does not have the advantage of the president’s coattails. Last I checked, the president’s name will not appear on a ballot in this special election race.

Unfortunately for these candidates, the theory is wrong. Voters in US Senate elections are partisan voters and Warren would have defeated Brown even if she did not have the benefit of the president’s coattails, which is why the smart money in this race is on Markey and Sullivan in April and Markey in June.

There are two central problems with the theory animating the Gomez, Winslow, and Lynch campaigns. First, it over-estimates the impact of candidate campaigns on voters choices, and second, it under-estimates the degree of partisan polarization among voters in US Senate elections. These candidates hope to accomplish two related objectives through their campaigns; to increase “independent” voter turnout and to persuade “swing” voters to vote for them. This won’t work because increasing turnout in a special election (especially in a special primary election) requires the kind of organizational resources and infrastructure that are commanded by the party establishment’s candidates. Party “outsiders” are at a tremendous disadvantage in building organizational capacity. In an abbreviated “special” election campaign this disadvantage is only greater.

The mythical “swing” voters that such a strategy relies on are just that; mythical, not real. Voters are influenced first and foremost by partisanship. Most of the voters thought to be potential “swingers” are actually just closet partisans, many of whom may even be unconscious of their partisan leanings. Anti-party rhetoric and claims of “independence” are popular in the abstract and even on the campaign trail, but when voters get into the voting both they are not signaling an abstract preference. They are registering a real preference that depends on real, relevant contexts. When it comes to sending a candidate to the highly partisan and deeply polarized US Senate, is it reasonable to expect voters to choose someone that is inexperienced in or unsuited for partisan combat?

Gomez, Winslow, and Lynch are betting their political fortunes on a misperception of voters in US Senate elections. Interestingly, the fact that the theory is wrong and that the campaigns relying on it will almost certainly lose doesn’t make it a bad bet for everybody concerned. For the pundits, pollsters, and political pros who traffic in these types of flawed perceptions, its remains a profitable wager.

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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5 Responses to Gomez, Winslow, & Lynch made a bad bet

  1. Pingback: Headlines for Monday, April 8, 2013 » MASSterList

  2. Gerrit says:

    I agree with this assessment overall — it pays to be partisan.

    Could you expand briefly on how this applies to Scott Brown’s 2010 victory in the special election? I don’t recall whether he had an independent theme at the time, but if he did, that seems to go against this blog’s argument.

    Thanks for the great blogs!

    • Gerrit,

      You are absolutely correct that if Brown had run as an Anti-establishment” candidate in 2010, my argument would be weaker. He did not, though I have noticed some journalists trying to claim that he did recently. I think it was a Herald piece that argued that “Lynch is mimicing Brown’s 2010 approach to his party’s establishment. In reality, especially since Brown had no party primary, Brown ran as a strong anti-Obama partisan in 2010.

      • Gerrit says:

        With hindsight, what is your take on this prediction?

        Gomez tacked toward the center in the primary and he won. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he won because he tacked toward the center; but it still made the smart money bet from this blog incorrect in the end.

        Do you think his centrist leaning was helpful in the primary? Do you think (as I do) that he won because he has a compelling story with both business and military experience? Or maybe you think he won the primary because of something completely different?

        Thanks again!

  3. I was surprised Gomez won the primary, but he merely delayed his defeat. Voters are partisan. My mistake with the Republican primary was assuming that ideological partisans would beat the tactical partisans. What I over estimated was the capacity of the Tea Party wing of the Mass GOP to turnout for a very low turnout primary. Apparently, the MA TPers are either very few or are quite a bit more tactical than their fellows around the country.

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