In Tuesday’s US Senate debate Gabriel Gomez tried to separate himself from his party by assuring viewers that, unlike some Republicans, he is not anti-science. I’m not so sure that is true. Sure, he “believes in” climate change, but based on his campaign strategy it seems to me that he might not “believe in” political science.
Gomez’s campaign has never wavered or wandered from his central message, which is that voters should choose him because he was a Navy Seal and is a successful businessman, and not choose Ed Markey because he is a professional politician who has lost touch with reality and his Bay State constituents because he has spent four decades in Congress. Gomez is running a classic anti-politics campaign against the perception of corruption, hyper-partisanship, and incompetence in Washington, DC, of which Mr. Markey is said to be the personification.
How smart does this approach look from the perspective of those who study elections and voter behavior for a living? Not very. What factors drive voter decisions? Which voters turnout for various types of elections? More specifically for our purposes here, which voters are most likely to show up at the polls on June 25th to cast a vote in the special US Senate election here in Massachusetts? If you consult the political science research on any of these questions, it looks like the Gomez campaign brain trust has very little confidence in the work of political scientists. Gomez’s cookie-cutter, candidate-centered, anti-politics, anti-Washington campaign is overtly directed at the voters who are least likely to turnout for a “special” election in June.
In a nutshell, the political science literature tells us to expect a special election in June to attract a disproportionate number of high information, partisan voters who hold clear positions on the most salient policy issues. Nonetheless, the Gomez campaign has been directed almost entirely toward low information, unenrolled/ non-partisan voters who do not have clear, articulable positions on policy issues and who essentially base their choices at the polls on vague social and cultural cues gleaned from the resumes and rhetoric of the candidates.
Fueling what looks like an anti-political science approach by Gomez’s campaign is probably what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” Considering that Democrats enjoy a three-to-one party registration advantage in the state, and considering that the majority of Bay State voters agree with the Democrats on a majority of the salient policy issues, it may be that this exercise in self-deception by a Republican senate candidate is less a denial of political science and more a necessary coping mechanism. The illusion is sustained by cherry-picked polling data marshaled to support otherwise nakedly baseless claims that the campaign is “gaining momentum” or “closing the gap.”
It’s not just campaign and party folks engaging in this transparently self-interested misinterpretation of polling data. Many in the political media charged with covering elections are hard pressed to resist the urge themselves, playing along for their own self-interested purposes. In the ongoing Markey-Gomez “race” both sides have an incentive to interpret “tightening” poll numbers as evidence of an increasingly competitive race. Both parties and both candidates are, in fact, embracing this interpretation in order to fund raise and motivate campaign workers and volunteers down the stretch.
A much more plausible, but less useful, explanation for the smaller Markey lead in the latest Suffolk Poll is that the accuracy of the Suffolk Poll’s “likely voter” screen has improved, as they routinely do the closer a poll is to Election Day. At this point, when all the relevant variables in this contest are properly considered the only sensible doubt about the final outcome involves the size of Markey’s margin of victory on Election Day.