The Myth of Martha Coakley’s Mistakes

If there is one unassailable bit of conventional wisdom among Democrats in this state it is that Martha Coakley blew the special senate election against Scott Brown in 2010 with her gaffe prone campaign. It is such a verity that the AG herself, campaigning for governor, goes about the state in sack cloth chanting mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The only problem with that narrative is that it is wrong. Martha’s Mistakes didn’t matter.

Let’s take a look at some of those gaffes and try to draw some insight about their impact. The mistake time line comes from New York Times of January 21, 2010. The polling information is available at realclearpolitics.

Date Event Horse Race
Nov. 4-8 Suffolk Poll Coakley +31
Dec. 9, 2009 Brown   challenges Coakley to sign “no tax” pledge; Coakley calls this a   gimmick
Dec. 24-29 Coakley   off campaign trail
Jan. 4 Rasmussen Poll Coakley +9
Jan. 7-9 PPP poll Brown +1
Jan. 12 Coakley   fundraiser, some healthcare lobbyists attend. Brown uses in ad, but not until   Jan. 14
Jan. 11-13 Suffolk Poll Brown +4
Jan. 13 Responding   to complaints of a passive campaign, Coakley tells Globe: “As opposed to   standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”
Jan. 14 Responding   to a question on a radio program about whether hospital workers should have a   conscience exemption on religious grounds from some medical procedures,   Coakley says “You can have religious freedom, you probably shouldn’t   work in the emergency room.”
Jan. 14 PJM/Cross   Target Poll Brown+ 15
Jan. 15 InsideMedford/MRG   poll Brown   +10
Jan. 15 Coakley   refers to Curt Schilling as a “Yankee fan.”
Jan. 15-17 ARG   Poll Brown +7

See any gaffes impacting the race? Something was at work between November and January 4 but it couldn’t just be a few days off. Coakley clustered a few mistakes around mid-January but they couldn’t have had time to affect the polls. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but still. Democrats who are worried that Martha Coakley “might unravel at any moment” are heeding the media and insider narrative but they are ignoring reality.

During the 2012 presidential campaign the political scientists at often took up the question of how the latest candidate gaffes would affect the race. But the research shows that gaffes don’t have much impact, maybe a very minor one at the time it happens, but it fades quickly. Voters are simply not paying attention, no matter how painful individual Martha Mistakes might have been for Democratic insiders, or Romney Shockers were for Republican activists.

So what were more important factors than Coakley’s miscues? I recently offered one theory based on a paper by my UMB colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen that the poor performance of the economy under President Obama and the Democrats played a role. A commenter scolded me for that as presenting “revisionist history” willing to discount Coakley’s “ham-fisted campaign.” Another study by political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart placed the defeat at the door of a demobilization of working poor Democrats, especially minority voters – but given their economic conditions in January 2010, why would they rally to the cause? A study by Boston University’s College of Communications “Project for Excellence in Journalism” showed that after the Rasmussen poll shook up the race, coverage of Brown turned overwhelmingly positive, and that of Coakley negative.

The three studies mentioned above aren’t “revisionist history.” They are careful studies undertaken by academics. They reflect what we are trying to do here at bring social science research into the debate about Massachusetts politics.

Not to take anything away from Martha Coakley visiting Fenway Park or Senator Elizabeth Warren’s hair style, of course.

(A Facebook friend tells me those five days of vacation jump off the page. But think about it — Dec. 24-29 –big focus time for politics? Not to mention, she was practically a work horse compared to Ed Markey, and he did just fine. So although my friend is a distinguished political scientist, I’m not buying that those days off cost her 22 points in the polls).

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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