Senator John Kerry has not yet been confirmed as Secretary of State, but MassINC has released a poll that has been generally reported as one between Republican former Senator Scott Brown and Democratic Congressman Ed Markey. Markey has indeed announced he is running and has received widespread endorsement and support among Democrats already. The reporting on the poll suggests two major takeaways: (1) Brown is beating Markey by 20 points and (2) voters want a primary. I will dispense with the latter first. Voters always want choices when one is not actually placed in front of them on election day. This conclusion is a fair one from the data, but it should be categorized as “So What Else is New?” The former is also a fair conclusion from the data, but the focus on it is an improper reading of what is actually important in this poll.
No election day ever occurs before candidates have a chance to campaign – even a special election. It is not surprising that a former statewide elected official would have greater name recognition than a congressman who has represented his district for 30 some years. These are some reasons why the topline numbers on the latest poll in the Massachusetts special election are less than meaningful. What is meaningful are the data from the crosstabs that tell us what people are thinking about specific questions.
Here is what I take away from that poll:
- Almost everyone polled has heard of Brown
- Most people have never heard of Markey
- Brown’s support comes mainly from white men over 30
- Young votes do not like Brown
- Young voters have never heard of Markey
So, does the topline result that Brown is “beating” Markey by 20 points mean the election is over? (And, we should remember that at this time only one of these guys is actually running for the seat and it is not Brown.) This poll, like all polls at this stage in any election cycle, gives us a lot of information about what people might do on election day. Until the campaign solidifies and the election date grows closer even good pollsters cannot tell us anything meaningful about how people are going to vote when they get the chance
At this point, a poll like this is of much more use to a campaign than it is to the public in trying to understand the dynamics of the race. The data in the crosstabs tell a campaign where its opportunities and liabilities might lie. And this poll is no exception.
What is Brown’s opportunity here? He is well recognized and well liked in general. That is never a problem for a candidate. But, as the 2012 election proved (and it was not the first election to prove this), that is not enough to get elected. For those who were not following it, Brown lost reelection to Elizabeth Warren nearly three months ago by 8 percentage points. In our political system, that’s a landslide.
But, since Brown is up 20 points on Markey, he must have few or no liabilities in the race, right? Well, that’s not what the data says to me. Brown is popular among certain demographics, but he is not well liked by women and I would say disliked by young voters. Nonwhite voters don’t seem to like him either. But, his approvals are still good enough to have an overall positive approval rating. So, he needs to do one of two things: (1) improve his standing with the voters who don’t seem to like him very much or (2) make a concerted effort to turn out the vote among white men. He could try both strategies, but it is likely that strategy number 2 will depress strategy number 1.
You might ask: why does he need to do anything? If he stays the course and these numbers hold he will easily beat Markey, right? Wrong. This is where widespread name recognition can be a liability. Brown has it and people have opinions of him. Markey does not have it, and many people do not have an opinion of him. That may be more opportunity for Markey than liability for Brown, but the dynamics of this are such that in the end both cannot be true. Markey does have a net favorability rating, but over 34% have never heard of him (these numbers are for registered voters). Compare that to the 2% who have never heard of Brown. These numbers are even more interesting when you add in the folks who have heard of them, but are undecided. This means 59% of registered voters have no opinion of Markey, while only 13% have no opinion of Brown.
But, isn’t it a problem that Markey fares worse than a generic Democrat head-to-head against Brown? No – or at least, not necessarily. This looks more like an opportunity to me than a liability. The reason is that Markey is largely unknown. If the polling found the same thing true of Brown, I would say that would be cause for concern. When voters know you and then would prefer an unknown, that can signal a problem. But when, as in this case, voters do not know you and would prefer an unknown, the best we can say about that is that it is probably more of statement that voters would like their ideal candidate. No one is really most people’s ideal candidate. And in an environment where you are asked to choose between someone you don’t want, someone you don’t know, and an unknown choice of your own personal choosing, is it surprising that most people might go with option number 3? On election day, this issue will not be a problem. People will have an opinion of Markey or they won’t vote at all – that is to say, all likely voters on election day will have an opinion of Markey. That doesn’t mean he will win, but he has the opportunity to frame the debate in a way that Brown – despite his popularity – does not.
So, if Markey has an opportunity here based on demographics and lack of name recognition, what must he do? Here is where the reporting on polls such as this typically miss the mark. These kind of polls help campaigns to strategize and plan. The press often focuses on the topline numbers and misses the reason why such polls actually can be important. At this point, we have to apply the poll findings to political issues and policy and message that back to targeted voters.
This poll tells me that Markey might want to focus his campaign on these four issues:
- Climate change
- Reproductive rights
- Gay rights
This is not a cynical exercise because Markey has a record and position(s) in all of these areas. I am sure he has a record and position(s) on foreign aid, drone strikes, and debt reduction, but these are not the issues it seems to me will resonate with his electorate in 2013. Partly this is due to the race that was run only a few months ago and partly it is due to the issues that are current today and Markey’s strength on them (or Brown’s weakness). Two other issues that might work for Markey – but I see no evidence of it one way or the other from this poll – are gun control and immigration.
Why these four issues? Young voters and women voters particularly respond to the first three issues. Since there Markey is a relative unknown quantity to these demographics (and an overwhelming one to youth voters), these are areas that Markey can build support simply by running on his record. Regardless of what positions Brown takes on them, his party has staunchly opposed just about all efforts to deal with climate change, promote gay rights, and…well, let’s just say their positions on reproductive rights might be called anything from tin-eared to just plain crazy.
Nonwhite voters, since they are disproportionately impacted by the economy, are likely to respond to the fourth issue (in addition to the some or all of the first three – and youth and women will respond to this fourth issue, too, to be sure). The important thing about the fourth issue is that it is a proven wedge issue for white male support for Brown. As senator, Brown voted against unemployment insurance extensions which caused many blue collar men (particularly in the building trades, from where Brown’s union support came) to lose any means of support for their families during a period in which the unemployment rate in some trades was up to and over 50%. Brown arguably singled-handedly caused this by fulfilling his promise to be the “41st vote” so Republicans could filibuster the Obama agenda. Reminding white working class men of this aspect of Brown’s record undermined the senator’s reelection strategy and resulted in strong building trade support for Warren, which was a reversal of what happened with Coakley in 2010.
While I did wander down the road into campaign strategy, it was to underscore the main point of this piece. Early polls are valuable for understanding where there are opportunities and liabilities for campaigns. They tell us little about who is winning or losing, particular with reference to the topline numbers on head-to-head contests. Markey’s strategy might crystalize from this poll or it might not. Campaigns conduct their own polls and their strategists have their own ideas about what will work. Sometimes they have brilliant insights, sometimes the fall back on outdated “conventional wisdom,” and sometimes they just get lucky. The campaign will be short, so we’ll see pretty soon how it shapes up. In any case, this poll says pretty much nothing to regular folks about the coming election. But, it does say a lot to the campaigns.