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.