Commentary Magazine


Scott Brown’s Poll Numbers and the Lessons of 2012

Over the weekend, the MassInc Polling Group released the results of a poll on a hypothetical matchup for John Kerry’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat in Massachusetts. The poll contains some very good news for the possible Republican candidate, Scott Brown, but also offers a reminder of why his support and high approval numbers don’t by any means guarantee him true frontrunner status.

Brown learned that the hard way, of course, in November. He went into his election against liberal class warrior Elizabeth Warren with numbers any incumbent member of Congress, especially a senator, would feel good about. His approval rating was at 57 percent. He was viewed as bipartisan as well–essential to his success as a Republican in Massachusetts. That would normally insulate most senators in a general election (a primary would be another story). But Brown lost, and the good news/bad news disparity in this poll is a good summary of why:

Brown takes 53 percent support in the poll, over [Representative Edward] Markey at 31 percent. A match-up of Brown against a generic Democratic ballot is considerably closer, but Brown still leads, 44-36 percent….

His decision comes even as Markey has racked up numerous big-name endorsements from prominent Massachusetts and national Democrats, notably Kerry himself and the National Democratic Senatorial Committee. 

Brown has a strong favorability rating with Massachusetts voters, at 55 percent positive, but his numbers in head-to-head match-ups against the Democrats are possibly inflated because voters are unfamiliar with the Democratic candidates.

On the one hand, Brown’s numbers against a sitting Democratic congressman with high-profile endorsements (including from the man relinquishing the seat) are high. On the other, the numbers are much closer against a “generic” Democrat, since so many of the state’s voters are Democrats who would prefer an acceptable Democrat to a “good” Republican.

There are some conditions working in Brown’s favor. First of all, he won the last Senate special election and lost the full election, which took place in a presidential year, with President Obama on the ballot and the high turnout associated with presidential elections. The conditions of this special election, to take place later this year, would obviously resemble the conditions of the election he won more than the one he lost. Additionally, Brown ran against a weaker opponent in the first special election in Martha Coakley; if Markey begins the race with low numbers, it may signal that he is a weaker candidate than others who might want to run against Brown for the seat (hence “generic” Democrat’s lead over Markey).

And paradoxically, his recent election loss could help him find his way back to the Senate. One of the issues that Warren worked effectively during the race was the idea that re-electing Brown could tip control of the Senate to the Republican Party, so that even if Massachusetts voters liked Brown, they should think strategically about who they would empower in the nation at large with their votes. This year, since the Democrats have 55 seats in the Senate (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats), Brown could not make a noticeable difference–or at least not a significant enough difference to worry Massachusetts voters. One takeaway from November’s election was that the state’s voters seemed to want both Brown and Warren in the Senate if they could so choose; they would–if Brown runs in this election–now have their chance.

However, Brown surely understands that his high approval numbers didn’t save him in November and they might fail to do so again if he runs. Further, Kerry’s seat is up in 2014. That means Brown would only have a year in the Senate to prepare for a general election again. But it also means he won’t have to run for re-election this time in a presidential year. Brown also has a choice: he can run for governor instead. If he chooses that path, he may get to run against Coakley again, and in general it would be easier under normal circumstances for Republicans to win the governorship in Massachusetts–as they have often done–than to win a Senate seat there.

The poll, then, is being reported as the kind of news that would encourage Brown to run for the seat, while instead it contains a reminder of why he may have an easier path back to political office by passing on the Senate seat. The national Republican Party would surely want Brown to choose the Senate seat over the governorship, but they may also underestimate the electoral strength of “Generic Democrat” in Massachusetts. It’s doubtful Brown would make the same mistake.

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