Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Breaking Down Massachusetts -- TIme to Take Upset Talk Seriously

A new Rasmussen poll released today shows Democrat Martha Coakley with a slim, 2 point lead over Republican Scott Brown in the special election race for the Massachusetts Senate. Unlike the PPP poll released early in the week, Rasmussen is a non-partisan polling firm, albeit one that has come under fire from the left for having polling data this year favorable to Republicans. Scott Rasmussen, in my view, has several things enhancing his credibility:
(1) His polling was above average in its state-by-state accuracy in November 2008
(2) He was also above average in the accuracy of his polls in the New Jersey and Virginia Governors races
(3) The primary source of Democratic criticism has been that his approval figures for President Obama have consistently run 5 to 10% behind the consensus of the rest. But a public opinion poll is not the same as an election projection poll. The Rasmussen poll has differed from many other public opinion polls in that he has attempted to target likely voters, whereas many other polls target the general public or registered voters. But all election projection polls (at least all the ones worth anything) target likely voters.

In short, I have no statistical evidence in actual elections that would cause me to question the methodology behind Scott Rasmussen's polls, and absent that and especially given his track record of accuracy, I consider his polling credible.

So, lending the Rasmussen poll some credence and noting that the polling has tightened 7 points over the past week in that poll, I'm left to conclude that we now have a horse race.

Massachusetts moves from Likely Democratic Hold to Lean Democratic Hold

So, let's break down the things that will make the difference:
(1) Momentum in the closing week -- advantage Brown -- clearly he is gaining and if you were to draw a trend line from a few weeks ago to election day, Coakley is in big trouble
(2) Bank account -- big advantage Coakley -- she can spend, spend, spend in the closing week in a way Brown can't match. Both her own campaign and the DNC are far better funded in the home stretch than Brown and the RNC. Her wisest move would be to hit hard in the closing week to move social moderates and rally the base.
(3) Base turnout -- advantage Brown -- the GOP base is fired up and tends to turn out higher in off-year elections to begin with (social conservatives ALWAYS make it to the polls.) The DEMs are pretty beaten down and it's hard to imagine 19-year-olds and African-American voters turning out for Martha Coakley in the same numbers that they did for Obama.
(4) State demographics -- advantage Coakley -- let's face it, Massachusetts doesn't really want a Republican, not a real Republican anyway. It's among the bluest states. Brown's surge reflects a lot of frustration with the Obama administration, the state of the economy and the sense that things aren't getting any better in this country (take a look at the right track / wrong track poll numbers if you doubt me.) Plus, Americans like to check power. But will those socially liberal, economically moderate independents really pull the lever for Brown in the end?

Can #1 and #3 overcome #2 and #4?

The betting public on intrade presently pegs the odds in the race with Coakley as a 10 : 3 favorite. That seems about right to me heading into the home stretch. Brown really could legitimately win, but the odds are still stacked against him. But if he pulls this off, it will be an amazing rallying cry for the GOP and an amazing hit to the DEMs.

I expect a number of new polls in this race in the next few days, which should help lend us some clarity heading into next Tuesday. Bear in mind that special elections are notoriously hard to poll for, as it is hard to tell who will actually show up to vote the Tuesday after a holiday weekend.

But it's going to be a fun ride, and quite possibly a late night next Tuesday

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