Five Lessons from the Massachusetts Special Election

Last night's special election in Massachusetts was a huge win for Scott Brown and Republicans and we have a lot to learn from the election about the way that the winning coalition is shifting and how we can tap into populist sentiment nationwide.


Last night's special election in Massachusetts was a huge win for Scott Brown and Republicans and we have a lot to learn from the election about the way that the winning coalition is shifting and how we can tap into populist sentiment nationwide.   While fully understanding what happened and how we can use the lessons from Massachusetts around the country will take time, here are five lessons from Massachusetts in the form of more-or-less famous quotes.   1)   "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action." Since the 2008 election, Republican candidates are three-for-three in major statewide elections and all three came in states that Obama won. The political winds are clearly blowing our way, but we can improve our chances of winning big in 2010 by understanding what our victories in Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts have in common.   2)   "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold." Much has been made of Obama's "top and bottom" 2008 coalition.

Obama won big with voters with annual household incomes under $50,000 and also took 52% of the vote among those with household incomes over $200,000. But, middle class voters were critical for Obama, as well. He won 51% to 48% among voters with household incomes of $75,000 to $100,000. Frustration with a Democratic agenda that seems to favor the very rich and the poor has driven a wedge through the middle of the Obama coalition. Handouts to Wall Street and car company executives have fueled middle class anger at Democrats. The decision to sacrifice cost control for a focus on access and universal coverage in the health care plan has furthered middle class disenchantment. Republican candidates with a populist message have shown the way to winning back the middle-class vote. Bob McDonnell won across the board in Virginia, but his biggest margins came from voters with household incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 In Massachusetts, election night polling showed Scott Brown winning every income group from $40,000 to $100,000 and winning blue collar strongholds like Lowell and Quincy.   3)   The conventional wisdom that 'negative campaigning works' is "true in some sense, false in some sense, and meaningless in some sense." In the final days of the campaign, Martha Coakley went negative and tried to paint Scott Brown as everything from an arch-conservative to a Wall Street elitist. None of these attacks worked. We hear a lot in the campaign world about "driving up opponent negatives" and "inverting their image" but that kind of thinking is too simple and leads to failure. "White hats versus black hats" is still one of the strongest narratives available to a campaign, but it takes more than just telling voters why the other side is bad.  We have to tell them why our candidates are the "white hats." Scott Brown did this effectively by tapping into the populist middle-class sentiment and then branding Coakley and the Democrats as elitist, out of touch, and pursuing dangerous policies. 4)   "Campaigns matter." Scott Brown and his campaign understood the mood of the electorate, developed a winning narrative, and got their message to voters.  That's how you win campaigns. Much has been made of Brown's "everyman" image. What he understood and what we need to understand is that the Republican constituency today is populist, middle class, and "everyman."  If a well-run campaign with the right narrative, energy, and execution can win in deep-blue Massachusetts then we can win anywhere.   5)   "Don't pull your arm of socket trying to pat yourself on the back." Last night was a huge win for Scott Brown and should motivate every Republican around the country to redouble our efforts to win big in November. But, last night also makes us one-for-five in special elections during this election cycle. Republicans should be confident and emboldened, but we should also learn one from the Coakley campaign and not take anything for granted. Tyler Harber is vice president and director of the Political Division for Wilson Research Strategies, a leading public opinion research and political consulting firm for Republicans. You can follow Harber at www.w-r-s.com or on @tharber.

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