Only The Democrats

>> Monday, January 18, 2010

Can turn what should be a sure thing into an angst ridden few days. The only thing more fulfilling than rooting for Celtic in European competition, or the Mariners prior to 1995, is consistently setting myself up for disappointment by supporting the Democrats.

I have several disorganized sets of semi-organized comments on this. First, the validity and reliability of polling in this election, second, the structural and contextual issues facing the Democrats, and finally, what the worst case scenario could mean.

538 has been doing their usual comprehensive, rigorous, and analytical job of covering the polling side of this race, but even they are flailing about at night, in a deep fog, on a Pacific Ocean beach, after drinking way too much vintage port, unable to work out east from west, north from south, blindfolded. With the tide coming in. (Yes, this is personal anecdote, save for the blindfold. But then it wasn't really necessary). Polling is going to be particularly problematic in this electoral setting. Polling houses rely on likely voter models that vary based on a series of assumptions. These assumptions are usually, but not always, defensible in a normal electoral setting such as a Presidential or even mid-term year, where we have heaps of past empirical data to model, from which we can estimate probabilities of who is more likely to turn out and who less likely.

A mid January election in the state of Massachusetts held in the current political climate does not afford such a wealth of data, needless to say. I would be extremely reluctant to use polls conducted in this electoral context as the empirical base for a projective model formulated during a "normal" year (2008) for Senate elections to estimate a probability of either a Brown or a Coakley victory tomorrow. Indeed, Franklin reports that the polling in this race is highly varied; where in general elections we find various poll estimations within +/- 5% 95% of the time, the results here are all over the map. This is not at all surprising, since nobody has a clear idea what the electorate will look like tomorrow.

However, there are a few certainties that we can cling to, and none warm my heart. First, turnout will be lower on Tuesday than in November 2008. As structural variance in turnout affects different socio-economic categories at different, and largely predictable, rates, it's safe to say that the drop off in Republican turnout will be less extreme than Democratic turnout. In a needlessly close rate hinging on independent voters, this matters, even in a state where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans.

Second, while we can point to NY-23 for evidence of how the tea-bagger label or support can be toxic in certain settings, a year in to the administration, the present race can be assuming more of a protest vote dynamic. Obama and the Democrats are becoming associated with the economic malaise. While Obama is right to suggest that it takes more than one year to reverse what eight years caused, this evidential argument doesn't necessarily play. Democrats can't run against Bush indefinitely. There comes a point where the party has to present a positive message about its policies, and while this has always been a stretch for the Democratic Party in my lifetime, the effectiveness of "running against the past" will attenuate with time. As this is essentially a by-election where the fate of the executive branch is not at risk, and most people don't really understand how the U.S. Senate operates (i.e. that 60th vote does matter, like it or not), those content in their support for the current administration and the Democratic Party have less incentive to turn out than the tea bagging set, those swayed by seductive populist appeals, those independents who have reasoned concerns with the approach of the administration, or even those, independent and Democrat, who just want to send a message of protest or frustration with the current climate.

The Democrats, both in Congress and in the administration, are the incumbent party of power now, and will start to bear the burden of blame for current conditions.

Finally, as fellow Massachusetts pol Tip O'Neil famously said, all politics is local. Coakley has, at best, run a complacent campaign. At one extreme, the campaign can be portrayed as a campaign of entitlement -- she expected to coast to victory. I can understand the national Democrats' overlooking the Mass. Senate race, but the actual candidate still has to win, and convincing her base to support her in a special election in January is critical. She hasn't. Massachusetts has elected Republicans state-wide, and until 2007 had a lock on governor for 16 years. They're not scared of electing Republicans, and in an election that superficially appears to not matter, very well may do so.

The problem is that, as we know, this election does matter in both tactical and strategic senses. Tactically, it could (and probably would) torpedo health care reform. Of course, the Democrats can then blame the Republicans for this failure, but a) that's the only good that would come from a Brown victory, and b) this argument, too, assumes that average citizens understand that 59% of the vote in the US Senate is not enough. They won't get that, but rather see a party with 59% of the votes in the Senate failing miserably to pass the Administration's signature issue.

Strategically, the implications are clear. The Democrats can, and will, be portrayed both as free-spending socialists who can't be trusted with our tax dollars, yet simultaneously be portrayed as unable to simply and effectively govern with huge majorities in both Houses of Congress and the Presidency. We can't trust the Dems because they're pointlessly spending all our money, yet we can't trust the Dems because they can't seem to spend all our money.

This is before the symbolic value of it being Massachusetts, in Teddy Kennedy's seat, is exploited even superficially. The tea baggers and Republicans writ large will go ape shit, and the Democrats will embrace chicken little. Both will be over-reactions, but the potential damage caused by not passing health care reform should not be underestimated.

If Brown should win, I don't think the Democrats will suddenly lose the House in 2010. The conditions are different than 1994, which is another post entirely. They'll lose seats in both the House and the Senate, but anybody who knows anything about House elections already know that the Dems will lose seats in the House.

Will Brown win? Silver suggests a tend back towards Coakley, and these numbers don't include the weekend blitz by the Democrats (contra Silver, as he points out, Franklin reaches a different estimation). I wouldn't be surprised either way, yet I have faith that Coakley will pull it out. But it's nothing more than faith, and it pisses me off that it should come to nothing more than faith in Massachusetts of all places. Rationally, structural and contextual variables are aligned against the Democrats in this special election: significantly lower turnout favors the Republicans, the Democrats are now the incumbent party of government lending a protest-vote dynamic that typify special elections, and Coakley has run a magnificently shitty campaign.

However, in a state as blue as Massachusetts, the Democrats should have overcome these hurdles due to the built in partisan advantage. They haven't.


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