Friday, December 21, 2012

Great news for Bay State's recent Senate Loser: Brown poised for comeback

The Mass Inc. Polling Group, a Massachusetts based polling firm, had excellent news today for soon-to-be ex-Senator Scott Brown (MA). Their popular Governor, Deval Patrick, would trail Brown by 7 points in a hypothetical special election Senate race:

Brown (D):  47%
Patrick (R):  40%
Other/Unsure:  13%

The result is miraculous for two reasons: 1. Sen. Brown just lost a protracted, heated battle to Elizabeth Warren by 7 points.  2. Deval Patrick is quite popular in his home state, sporting a 60/26% favorable/unfavorable rating.

For what it's worth, Brown is quite popular in the Bay State himself, with a 58/28% rating, and leads every other possible challenger by as little as 15 points and as much as 27 points. But honestly, how many people would have guessed he'd be leading the popular blue-state Democratic Governor by near double digits in a hypothetical election, especially considering that he only defeated Martha Coakley in 2010 51-47%? Not many. But the survey results look even better for Brown when you take a closer look at the internals.

Mass Inc.'s racial/ethnic I.D. finding is considerably less white than the electorates that turned out both in 2012 AND in the 2010 special election for Ted Kennedy's seat. In BOTH of those elections, 86% of Massachusetts voters identified themselves as WHITE to exit pollsters, while 14% identified themselves as NON-WHITE. In the Mass Inc. poll, whites make up just 81% of the sample, while non-whites are 19%. If these numbers actually bear out in a hypothetical mid-summer special election, that would represent a large racial shift in the span of just a few months, and in the OPPOSITE direction of how special elections typically look (MORE white, not less). This shift in the electorate would presumably benefit the Democrat in the race, considering the fact that Brown won white voters in 2010 by a 55-44% margin, and LOST non-white voters, 66-33%. In the Mass Inc. poll, Brown carries white voters 51-38%, and loses non-white voters 47-33%.

So why is it good news for Scott Brown, the Republican, that Mass Inc. finds voters identifying as LESS white than in 2012 or 2010? Because despite that finding, Brown still leads Patrick, 47-40%, and would be leading by a larger margin if the 2013 electorate mimics the last two statewide elections. How much larger?

Mass. Inc. Poll reweighted to 2012 & 2010 racial/ethnic I.D. (per exit polls)

What was a 7 point, 47-40% lead for Brown becomes a 9 point, 48-39% lead. Not a major shift, but any increase in the number of white voters would certainly pad Brown's lead, assuming the rest of Mass. Inc.'s findings remain the same. 

Is a 48-39% lead - or even a 47-40% lead - likely in a hypothetical special election contest between Scott Brown and Deval Patrick? Not very. Brown is performing slightly ahead of his 2010 performance against Martha Coakley (D) among white voters. But more importantly, Deval Patrick (D), who is black, is performing significantly worse among NON-WHITES than Martha Coakley (D), who is white. Patrick only manages 47% of the non-white vote, whereas Coakley hit 66% in 2010. Is this result terribly likely in a hypo special election. Probably not, especially considering Patrick racked up over 70% of the non-white vote in 2006 (there were no MA exit polls in 2010).

So how would the Mass. Inc. poll results have looked had they found Deval Patrick's support among Non-White voters the same as Martha Coakley's 2010 performance, all other findings remaining the same?

Naturally, the gap between Brown and Patrick closes from 7 points to 3 points, with the Republican only leading 48-45%. 

There are a lot of unknowns in another potential Massachusetts special election for a senate seat. Will Brown perform as well or better than he did in January 2010, just as national Tea Party fervor was ramping up? Would Patrick's presence in the race motivate minority voters to back him in record proportions, as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012? Will Brown or Patrick even RUN if there is a special election? Who knows? But unlike the 2016 presidential contest, this one could be coming up fast. Let the speculation begin. (and for what it's worth, I do think Brown would run in a 2013 special election. If Patrick has his eyes set on anything, it's the presidency in 2016.)

Final note: Obama's political team at the White House is no doubt aware of these numbers, and can't be happy at the prospects of losing a Senate seat. Meanwhile, John Kerry has yet to officially be nominated as Secretary of State. If it never happens, we have a good idea why.

Updated to note that an Emerson College Polling survey taken during the same period as the Mass Inc. Poll shows Patrick leading Brown 47-43% in a hypo special election. Go figure. Emerson is new, but here is Nate Silver's 2012 pollster rankings showing MassInc. performing about average among all pollsters, relatively speaking.

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