Friday, January 22, 2010

The Political Environment in 2010

Coakley's loss in the presumed one of the safest of US Senate seats for Democrats came as a major upset, but not a surprise based on data in the closing weeks of the campaign. It is apparent that Coakley was not a good candidate and Brown was very good. Tactical and strategic mistakes were made by Coakley’s campaign, and those mistakes have been and continue to be discussed in depth elsewhere.

This loss sparked a couple of questions, one of which, is this the result of campaign failures or an omen? We're already seeing the media sound the siren song about the upcoming "Republican Wave," and the talking-heads recounting 1994's losses, but the polling data suggest another, less sensational story.

The polling data tells us that there were two serious problems contributing to the Coakley loss. Elections can never be considered a formality and the political environment can't be ignored. We'll leave the operational criticism aside, hoping for agreement that there is no substitute for a hard working candidate and a finely tuned campaign strategy implemented with efficiency and discipline. The political environmental impact on this campaign must be examined in-depth by all Democrats so as to understand what lies ahead in 2010. As outside observers without direct access to any internal data, we can only make more general observations and conclusions based on our experience and recent work in similar situations on the East Coast.

The importance of polling and pollsters to conduct in-depth examinations of the political environment, with an emphasis on voter intensity / engagement is as valuable and vital to a campaign as more "headline grabbing" information like where a candidate stands in a trial-heat scenario or the persuasive strength of his or her messages. A thorough evaluation of the political environment within which a campaign must operate should identify opportunities and expose underlying problems that have not yet manifested. Third-party polling data suggests that there was a serious motivational problem among base Democratic voters in Massachusetts. These motivational problems were obviously not overcome.

Were the motivational problems due to displeasure (disgust?) with the progress (or lack of progress) arriving out of DC? Probably, but weren’t these issues exposed in the polling? Regular polling was not conducted during this well-funded senatorial campaign, which is a perplexing revelation to us. The campaign did not have the ability (or felt it was unnecessary) to check their progress and determine if the motivational issues were being reversed (that is, if it was exposed in the initial benchmark survey). The campaign also did not have data that would have told them if their message was resonating or if events outside of their control (like the healthcare bill) were having an impact among the voters.

The root problem appears to be that corrective action was not taken to motivate the base. A campaign was not run that was designed to win in a very unfavorable climate, despite the natural partisan advantages in the State.

While some will point to losses in New Jersey and Virginia as the foundation of a "wave" that helped to wipe out the Massachusetts Senate race, there were several local-level campaigns between Virginia and Massachusetts (with far less funding and ability to communicate to voters) that were able to weather the storm.

Our polling caught early signs of motivational problems in several New York elections. Our NY clients were able to address these problems during the front end of their campaigns and were able to drive turnout. Losses are inevitable and, even if a national political wave is turning against Democrats, campaigns that track environmental changes and work diligently to prepare for changing dynamics will be far more likely to weather the worst of political storms.

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