Thinking about the unthinkable

One crude way to think about the Massachusetts Senate race is to suppose that the swing from Democrat to Republican in this race is as great as the remarkable swing from 2008 to 2009 that just occurred in the Virginia governor’s race. Would this produce a victory for Republican Scott Brown?
The answer is: not quite. The swing in Virginia was about 24 percentage points. McCain lost to Obama by a little more than 6 points; McDonnell defeated Deeds by a little less than 18. In Massachusetts, Obama ran 26 points ahead of McCain.
But given the crudity of this device the real lesson, if any, is not that Brown will lose to Coakley by 2 points, but rather that a Brown victory is far from unthinkable.
It should be noted, however, that Virginia in 2008 deviated further from its usual pattern than did Massachusetts. McCain ran 14 percentage points worse than George W. Bush had in Virginia in both 2000 and 2004. Meanwhile, Obama did no better than John Kerry had in Massachusetts (Kerry, of course, is from Massachusetts). Obama did much better than Al Gore, but if you allocate the Nader vote to Gore, Obama’s Massachusetts showing in 2008 is not as impressive compared to the liberal candidates in 2000 as was his showing in Virginia.
This suggests that Brown faces more difficulty in producing a 24 to 26 percent turnaround from 2008 than McDonnell did in Virginia. For McDonnell could make up more of the gap simply by getting back to traditional levels of Republican popularlity in his state.
It should also be remembered that McDonnell ran for governor, not the Senate, and did so in the face of eight years of Democratic rule. Towards the end of that time, the state Dems became quite unpopular.
Brown is running for the Senate, so presumably it is the popularity of the national Democrats in Massachusetts that really matters. How popular are they? Obama is probably still popular in Massachusetts. If we believe the polls that have his national favorability rating in the mid 40s, then his popularity is Massachusetts is almost surely comfortably above break-even.
On the other hand, the congressional Dems are probably considerably less popular in Massachusetts than the president is, and the voters of that state may have concluded that their power should be curbed.
The thing that makes the Brown-Coakley race unique is that it might well determine whether health care reform passes or fails. Thus, Massachusetts attitudes on the merits of the pending legislation (especially the Senate incarnation) may be crucial. In late November, a Rasmussen poll had 51 percent favoring “the national plan proposed by President Obama and the congressional Democrats” and 47 percent opposed to whatever that was. A more recent poll had the split at 43-36 in favor.
Finally, just to make the plot even more improbable, Massachusetts happens to have adopted sweeping health care reform that attempts to bring about universal coverage in part by requiring nearly every resident of the state to have health insurance. The people of Massachusetts are pretty evenly divided on the success of this plan. According to a Rasmussen poll, 32 percent consider it a success, 36 percent see it as a failure, and 32 percent aren’t sure.
I conclude that the desire to stop health care won’t push Brown to victory, but neither will the desire to see it pass cause him to lose.
Looking at these metrics as a whole would lead me to make Coakely the slight favorite, even after all that has happened. But races this interesting usually take on a dynamic of their own at the end, and at this point I wouldn’t rely on any combination of broad metrics to predict this race. Polling on the race itself is more reliable, but the polls are giving conflicting signals, and I wouldn’t rely very much on them either.
UPDATE: A poll conducted this week by Suffolk University shows that 51 percent of likely voters in Massachusetts oppose Obamacare while only 36 percent favor of it. The same poll has Brown leading Coakley by a 50-46 margin. So the desire to stop health care might push Brown to victory after all.

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