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September 19, 2014

Is there anyone whose political fortunes are more tied to President Barack Obama than Scott Brown? According to Joshua Miller in the Boston Globe today, Scott Brown riding an anti-Obama wave in N.H. Obama played a large role in electing Brown in Massachusetts in 2010, Obama atop the ballot helped usher out the Scott Brown Era in Massachusetts in 2012 (and Brown himself out of Massachusetts), and Obama’s unpopularity may help usher Brown into yet another Senate seat in 2014.

Before we get back to New Hampshire though, le me return again to what really mattered in 2010. No, it wasn’t Martha Coakley’s supposed gaffes.

My University of Massachusetts at Boston colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen produced a working paper for the Roosevelt Institute, 1,2,3, Many Tea Parties that offered a much more likely explanation for the Democrats’ demise in 2010 than Coakley taking the days around Christmas off: the failure of Obama and the Democrats to address the economic devastation being felt by American working and middle-class families.

Using town level data on incomes and housing prices (see the article for disclaimers about the limitations of such data), Ferguson and Chen note that though overall turnout was robust for a mid-term special election, it fell in low-income Democratic voting towns.

[T]wo distinct economic factors clearly propelled the Brown vote. Measuring from November 2008 to December 2009, for each 1% unemployment rose in towns, the Democratic share of the vote fell by about a quarter of 1%. That may not sound like much, but the average rise in unemployment was about 4% across the state as a whole, with many towns hit much harder, including some that experienced double digit rises. Declines in single family house prices also depressed the Democratic share of the vote. Here variations across the state were even wider. For each 1% prices dropped, the Democratic share of the vote fell off by about a fifth of a percent. Many towns saw price drops of 5% to 9%, with values in one town falling 14%.

Now why would Democratic turnout suffer so badly?

[W]e think it is safe to conclude that our data are consistent with the claim put forward by the Democratic campaign’s chief pollster, that Obama administration’s unwillingness to face down the banks and slowness in dealing with the recession have demoralized and outraged the party’s electoral base. The disconnect between these disaffected Democrats and the administration and party leaders looks to be deep.

Thus it was more Obama than Coakley that lost the Kennedy seat in 2010. Still the press and some in the party still obsess on the mistaken story that Coakley’s poor campaigning skills cost here the seat, and that narrative is a drag on her in 2014.

To return to the interesting Mr. Brown is to be reminded that (after excusing Attorney General Coakley’s performance in 2010), campaign choices do matter. In 2010, Brown worked to nationalize the race in 2010. In 2012 he sought to localize it, the better to escape the odious association of the national Republican Party and restored luster of Obama; in 2014, he is trying to nationalize the race with opposition to the again unpopular Obama (just as Senator Jeanne Shaheen works to localize the race).

As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck write in The Gamble, in politics chance and choice both matter.

Scott Brown, Barack Obama

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