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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20 Responses to The Myth of Martha Coakley’s Mistakes

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Mr. Cunningham –

    Thank you or writing this. I know some non-public information about things inside the campaign, but here is one thing that was public: when some help arrived from Washington in early January, they found the practices and tools of the campaign in terrible shape. They didn’t have accurate lists of voters and didn’t have tools to manage the outreach. I will try to find the citation for that.

    My point is merely that the gaffes may have been signs of a poorly-managed campaign and not direct evidence of it.


    Ed Lyons (@mysteriousrook)

    • Mike says:

      Ed, not likely. The campaign database was NGPs Votebuilder which would have had the most accurate count of voters as it is regularly updated with the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s voter file. Votebuilder is widely used by the majority of Democratic Campaigns to manage all aspects of voter contact. The possibility that the Coakley campaign had a) bad data and b) bad voter management tools is highly unlikely.

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  3. Daniel T Kirsch says:

    Spending by the RNC, RSCC, the Brown campaign itself, as well as any outside GOP-leaning groups (such as over half a million dollars from the US Chamber of Commerce) is an important part of the story. For a special January election that was the first statewide election in the United States passed after the White House’s signature PPACA legislation, finance/insurance industry dollars must have found their way to this election as a pr victory against the White House. Living in Boston at the time, I recall watching ABC’s “This Week” a two weeks before the election, and counted fifteen TV commercials promoting Scott Brown in one hour, all from different groups. tells us that 60% of his campaign funds alone came from sources outside of Massachusetts. Case in point: The Brown campaign was an ad blitz-style national campaign with national issue focus (Brown re: Health care expansion: “I will be the 41st vote, and I would actually stop it”) focused exclusively on the Boston media market.

    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:

      I knew the Times didn’t have them all. One personal favorite was when she had a closed door meeting with a smallish city mayor and when the contrast with Brown meeting every voter was pointed out she said meeting mayors is more important. Something like that. But did that matter compared to the economic distress and the related low approval (hovering at 50%) of Obama? No.

  4. DB Reiff says:

    The BU study that showed a swing in press coverage to overwhelmingly positive for Brown was right and it continued through much of the Brown-Warren race. Even though Brown’s claim to fame when he won in 2010 was being the 41st vote against Obamacare and other Democratic initiatives — indeed he signed autographs as, “41” — the press never pointed out the 360-degee change in identity when he ran against Warren as the “bipartisan” choice. Nor did it look into any instances when Brown was indeed the 41st vote against legislation. So I did.

  5. Brendan P. Myers says:

    I think keeping innocent people in prison for years and years, letting them out only on the condition they not speak about their case, and to this day not acknowledging her mistake, should have been more than enough to keep her out of civilized society, let alone the senate or the governor’s office.

  6. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Thanks to all for reading and perceptive comments. This’ll be short — I have to run and teach. I don’t disagree at all that the campaign was poor or that campaign effects play a role in elections. I do think the insider/media account that dominates is wrong, focusing on personalities and trivialities and ignoring larger influences on the outcome. No question things got heavy for Brown in terms of outside spending and Stewart and Ansolabohere note the organizational advantage for the Republican — how many times have I ever typed those words? But a Democrat in MA who can call in President Obama and all those other heavyweights is not overwhelmed by Scott Brown’s resources.

  7. Ralph Zazula says:

    Maybe it was the Keith Winfield endorsement that cost her the race.

  8. Kevin Bowe says:

    Reason # 1 for the Coakley lose:

    The tide (this election was a harbinger of the tea party capture of the house 10 months later.)

    # 2) The overconfidence of the Coakley campaing and every Democratic operative and activist statewide and in DC.

    # 3) The whispers that Coakley was a poor campaigner proved true.

    No doubt she has learned lots of lessons about campaigning. Now neither Coakley or anyone around her will take anything for granted. No one around her will take anything for granted in an election again. And she won’t be swimming against a tea party tide this time. Ya, the ghost of ’10 will always be around. But it’s a different year with totally different dynamics.

  9. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    No doubt there were multiple factors. John Walsh falls on his sword over this one too. But the question is why should a Democratic statewide elected official get beaten by an obscure GOP sate senator in MA? And it has to do with much more than Coakley’s gaffes. Gaffes play a minor role.

    • Kevin Bowe says:

      “…the question is why should a Democratic statewide elected official get beaten by an obscure GOP sate senator in MA?” The overriding reason was the Tea Party tide. But the scares from the election impacts her in 2014. Every hint of being a poor campaigner will have far greater exponential impact.

      As we call know, it is perception that matters. And there is a strong perception that the gaffes did her in, so any future gaffes will be blown out on proportions. So in summary, yes it was not the gaffes that did her in in 2010, but the perception is still there that the gaffes were the problem and therefore “gaffe alerts” will be a major factor if her campaign.

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