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The Carletonian

Livin’ in the World Today

<rlier this week Republican Scott Brown won the election for the Senate seat left when Ted Kennedy died in August. In bluer than blue Massachusetts, most have labeled the results as a complete shock and a definite referendum on President Obama and Democratic Party policies. Although these narratives play well in the drama driven media, I have a bit of a different take having followed the election since the beginning of the primary campaign: this has been coming for awhile and beyond the dominant “Massachusetts is such a blue state ahh” storyline, the results are not that surprising.

Crisis breeds opportunity; Rahm Emanuel has said as much. The Dems should have known that. Really, this election should remind Democrats of an important fact: people are emotional and those who are best able to capture and speak to public feeling will be the most successful politicians. In times of crisis, like the current period of 10% unemployment, people are incredibly vulnerable to charismatic figures who know how to speak to their fears. This year, with the Democratic Party chasing health care reform—an important long term measure for the economy but one that does not speak to people’s immediate apprehensions—Republicans have had an easy time framing the public debate, turning the public’s feelings of fear and insecurity into anger towards the incumbent party.

Simply put, Scott Brown spoke to people’s concerns more effectively than did state Attorney General Martha Coakley; and while this seems like an obvious statement about a political winner, it is important to differentiate between normal and crisis situations. In normal situations, there is room for persuasion. Times of relative calm give candidates more leeway to make arguments. The approach is to convince voters that their solutions are the right ones. In periods of fear and anger, however, there is less room; particularly in the time-compressed conditions of a short special election campaign, the best strategy is to play to those emotions or be blown away for being out of touch. Unfortunately for Democrats, not only was Brown able to run a flawlessly populist campaign using the fear-mongering rhetoric that Republicans have perfected, but his Democratic opponent Coakley also ran a hopelessly incompetent and completely out-of-touch campaign.

Now, it is inevitable that in poor economic times such as these there would be a natural movement away from the incumbent party. In very liberal Massachusetts, however, these conditions would not have been enough to create a Republican win without the combination of populist rage and Coakley’s cluelessness creating a perfect storm for Republicans. An ably-run campaign by both still likely nets Democrats the win; Scott Brown needed help from the other side, and he sure did get it.

Having been anointed as Kennedy’s likely successor from the very start of the primaries, Coakley glided along a safe path, running an implicitly arrogant campaign assuming that her name recognition and party affiliation would pull her across the finish line. Not only did Brown conduct more than three times more events than did Coakley, but Coakley stopped airing ads and polling after the primary, before taking a six day vacation at the beginning of January, effectively allowing Brown to get a head start on advertising and messaging. With Brown having framed each candidate before the first Coakley ad even ran, she came back from vacation fitting his image of her to a tee, seeming out-of-touch by suggesting that Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan and reeking of the (frightening) status quo. In addition, she seemed to take votes and electoral victory for granted by, on top of not running as many events, scoffing at the idea of having to shake hands outside of Fenway Park in the cold.

If Democrats are going to have any chance of recovering, they need to start tuning into the public’s fears more effectively. Doing so will be the only way to immunize the population against Republicans’ hyperbolic characterizations of their reforms. With Republicans singing about 1994 all over again and a seriously important long-term agenda to enact, the Dems had better start engaging, and quick.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian Columnist

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