October 01, 2014

The subtitle of a Globe article last week caught my eye. It was “Martha Coakley dragged down by national trends.” In the article, the Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan explains that “a new Globe poll shows that national political conditions may be hobbling [Coakley’s] chances for victory.” Say what!?!

If national politics is on the minds of Bay State voters when they go to the polls on November 4th Martha Coakley will win because national politics is inescapably partisan and Massachusetts voters are entirely unambiguous about which party they prefer when party matters. So, what’s all this about a poll that says differently? O’Sullivan, writing about the results of the latest Globe Poll, suggests that “Coakley may be suffering from the souring national mood toward her party’s leader, President Obama. Even in predominantly Democratic Massachusetts, more voters, 48 percent, disapprove of the president’s job performance, than approve, 46 percent.” The implication here is that a lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic president could depress Democratic turnout, which could redound to the benefit of Republican Charlie Baker. There’s nothing wrong with this logic; it’s essentially a no-brainer in fact, but the suggestion that Coakley is being “dragged down” or that her chances of victory are being “hobbled” by national trends is almost certainly overblown.

In this same poll President Obama’s positives are higher than his negatives on a his handling of the economy, which has been identified by previous Globe polls as a primary concern of voters this year, and 60% of respondents oppose repealing the president’s signature policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. Also the Democratic Party fairs considerably better than the Republican Party in the poll on every issue, which is particularly salient here because of the inseparability in voters’ minds of partisanship and national politics. When voters go to the polls on Election Day party preferences (even among unenrolled voters) will impact behavior in ways not reflected in the survey data about Barack Obama or Martha Coakley. The Globe Poll doesn’t even ask undecided respondents which way they are leaning in the governor’s race. Nor does it ask respondents choosing one of the independent candidates who their second choice would be, and instead of probing respondents’ partisan leanings, the poll asks about ideological leanings.

The plausibility of the article’s thesis (Coakley could be hurt by voter disenchantment with the president and direction of the country) is also diminished by the absence of any effort to control for Coakley’s vastly superior voter mobilization operation and her “built-in structural advantages.” The idea that Coakley is being dragged down is based purely on survey responses to isolated questions about national politics and about Martha Coakley and Barack Obama personally. Respondents who registered disapproval of Coakley and/or President Obama were not probed further about the perspective from which they view both politicians negatively. It is very likely that a chuck of those registering disapproval are doing so from Coakley’s and Obama’s left. This phenomenon has been an issue in the public’s persistent negative feelings about the Affordable Care Act, particularly in Massachusetts.

At the end of the day, this article about the numbers in the latest Globe Poll is interesting, but it doesn’t live up to its headline. The Globe polls to date reinforce the wisdom of each side’s strategy in this race, which is to say that they show the wisdom of Charlie Baker’s efforts to personalize the race and Martha Coakley’s efforts to nationalize it. I can assure you that despite the headline and Obama job approval numbers here, Baker isn’t going to start running against Barack Obama or ramp up his anti-Obamacare pitch and Martha Coakley isn’t going to start distancing herself from President Obama.

One conclusion presented in the article, via a quote from pollster John Della Volpe, that is worth thinking more about is the contention that “the smaller the turnout, the better Baker will do.” While this seems reasonable enough on its face, I’m not certain that Coakley’s two winning statewide campaigns and quasi-incumbency advantages in this race won’t help the AG defy the conventional wisdom on who will benefit from a low turnout in November. I’ll chew on that some more and get back to you.

Globe Poll, Martha Coakley, Charlie Baker, Barack Obama

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