Monday, October 3, 2011

A Path to Victory for Brown

The recent UMass Lowell/Boston Herald poll of the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race has some sobering news for Scott Brown: among registered voters, he has a slim three-point (41-38) lead over Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren. Other polls have also suggested that this could be a close race.

However, there is plenty of good news for Brown here. 54% of voters think that Brown met or exceeded their expectations. His favorability/unfavorability ratings remain a healthy 52%/29%, respectively. Massachusetts voters don't hate Brown, and they're willing to give him a chance. Moreover, this race is still very fluid. Over 20% of voters are undecided, giving both Warren and Brown plenty of room to grow.

Digging into the demographic data for this poll suggests in many ways that Warren may be more identified with the status quo than Brown is. Interestingly, having a layoff in your household makes you more likely to support Brown: he leads Warren 42-36 among those experiencing a layoff in the household, while he only leads her 40-39 among households that haven't experienced a layoff. Voters who have felt the pain of the Obama economy are more willing to back the Republican. About half the Massachusetts population thinks the economy is getting worse, and Brown has his strongest lead with them. Among those who think the nation is on the wrong track, Brown has a commanding lead over Warren (though a less commanding lead than he had over Coakley in 2010).

These trends suggest that the less happy Massachusetts voters are with the status quo, the more likely they are to support Brown. But if Massachusetts voters aren't thrilled with the Obama economy, they are even less enthusiastic about having the national "conversation" that some conservative activists want to make the 2012 election about. An overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters want Social Security and Medicare to be untouched. Bay State voters also believe 52-40 that government should "do more to solve problems." Brown can't run on wanting to privatize Social Security or Medicare, and a Republican presidential candidate who made such a policy the centerpiece of his campaign could very well sink Brown. He has a slim lead over Warren in all age groups, but a defense of the mission of social insurance could help him win more votes from the middle-aged and elderly.

Brown has long recognized the banner of independence as crucial for his political survival as senator. By crafting his own identity apart from the Republican policy monolith (however frustrating that may be to some Tea Partiers), Brown can find space for electoral maneuvering.

The middle class is also crucial for Brown. Elizabeth Warren beats Brown among the poor (those with household incomes below $30,000) and wealthier (those with household incomes above $100,000). In fact, top income earners are the demographic most likely to support Warren (she gets 46% of their votes). Apparently, the rich of Massachusetts haven't gotten the memo that Obama and Warren are socialists who want to confiscate all their wealth or something. They don't seem too worried about taxes going up on upper-income earners, so Brown would be smart not to make tax cuts for the top 2% the core of his economic message. The rich have been the least affected by the recent recession, so they seem quite happy to let the Obama times roll.

Instead, Brown should focus on the rich electoral territory of the middle and working classes---the people whose jobs have been downsized, hours cut, and wages slashed. The great hollowing out of the middle class in the 2000s has made voters willing to listen to voices that challenge partisan orthodoxies of the right and left. Those with household incomes between $30,000 and $100,000 are the most likely to support Brown, so he should do what he can to maximize his margins here.

If Brown can offer a message that convincingly offers a rebuilding of the middle class, he might in turn increase the hopes of (and support for himself among) poorer Massachusetts residents. A convincing economic plan might also pull wealthier Warren supporters, especially those in the upper-middle class, in Brown's direction. Furthermore, a narrative of economic progress could boost Brown's numbers among the young, the demographic group hit so hard by the nation's poor employment picture.

Brown won in 2010 as a fair-minded outsider, and this poll suggests that Massachusetts voters are still willing to view Brown in that role. Though Brown looks more vulnerable now than he did six months ago, he still has a better shot of being elected to a full Senate term than any Republican has had in a long time. If the GOP wants to stay a national party with majorities capable of enacting large-scale reforms, it's going to need a diversity of Republicans. There's a case to be made in Massachusetts for independent-minded and efficient smaller-government policies, and Scott Brown seems the candidate to make this case.

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