Will Republican Scott Brown take Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat?

The race between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is proving difficult to project. One poll says the race is tied.

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    Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley speaks during a news conference at her campaign headquarters in Charlestown, Mass. Monday.
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A Senate race in Massachusetts should be an easy election to call: Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 in the state, and Massachusetts hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since it reelected Sen. Edward Brooke in 1972.

But the Jan. 19 special election to replace Sen. Edward Kennedy is proving to be a difficult one to project. Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), widely favored coming out of the Dec. 8 primary, has found state Sen. Scott Brown (R) a more formidable challenger than expected.

While Massachusetts is generally considered one of the bluest states in America, it also has more independents than Democrats and Republicans combined. Moreover, the timing of the election makes voter turnout hard to predict. Voters aren’t as accustomed to participating in a non-November election, and January’s bitter weather could keep them away from the polls.

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Historically, special elections have tended to produce low voter turnout.

“Crazy stuff can happen in special elections,” says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., which surveyed Massachusetts voters on the race.

In addition, the condensed campaign period – just over four months – means fewer ads and less time to get voters interested in the election, says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Low voter turnout would probably favor Senator Brown.

“Republican voters are extremely motivated,” Mr. Jensen says. “It will be a much more conservative electorate.”

That motivation helped Brown raise $1.3 million in only 24 hours, his campaign reported Tuesday.

On the other hand, many Democrats expect Ms. Coakley to win easily, given the heavily Democratic nature of the state. But that could lead to voter complacency in her base.

“This is Massachusetts and people think, ‘The Democrat is going to win, so why do I have to vote anyway?’ ” Professor Berry says.

Still, if voters perceive that the election is tightening, that might motivate Coakley’s supporters.

“The more people you include, the more Coakley’s numbers grow,” says David Paleologos, a pollster at Suffolk University in Boston.

Recent polls on the race have varied widely. One has Coakley ahead by almost 20 points, while another finds a tied race.

“It’s one of the largest discrepancies in polling that I can remember,” says Berry, who attributes the variation to polling methods.

The polls that had the smallest margin between Brown and Coakley used robo-calls to question likely voters. In contrast, the polls that placed Coakley substantially ahead relied on live operators.

The robo-call method could overemphasize Brown support, Berry says.

“If you are answering a robo-call, you might be someone who really wants to make a statement,” he says. “Brown voters really want to make a statement.”

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