The X factor

Come Monday, it's a one-week spring to the primary — and to capture the hearts of undecided voters.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 24, 2009

FRONT AND CENTER: Will front-runner Martha Coakley (above, top) hold on for another week and win her primary race, as Niki Tsongas did two years ago?

Martha Coakley should be plenty thankful for the holiday weekend. The polls suggest that, if nothing significant changes between now and the December 8 primary, she should handily claim the Democratic nomination for US Senate. So it's to her advantage if Massachusetts voters spend four (or more) of these remaining days distracted by travel, turkey, family, and football.

The other three candidates — Michael Capuano, Alan Khazei, and Steve Pagliuca — likely have fewer blessings to count. When residents return to their routines on Monday, there will be just one week remaining for them to make their case. In those frantic final days, they will be barnstorming the state, running ads, phone banking, and appearing in at least two televised debates.

Making that closing sales pitch will be especially difficult, as nearly everyone agrees that turnout for the oddly timed special election will be low.

There had been some initial predictions that the race would get extraordinary attention, thanks to the statewide fascination with Senator Ted Kennedy's death and memorial, and the subsequent controversy over whether to temporarily fill his seat.

But few see that now. Campaign staff complain of difficulty getting media coverage, and say that large numbers of voters appear disengaged.

That may change after the holiday, as the candidates hone their attacks, take their best shots, and perhaps even do or say something newsworthy.

Will it matter? Some observers believe that nothing that occurs in the last week of the campaign could alter Coakley's first-place status. Her name recognition and general popularity, they say, has already secured enough voters for her to win.

But her competitors' campaigns say their internal polling shows Coakley's lead is slipping, and that very large percentages of voters are still undecided. If those undecideds ultimately coalesce around any one candidate, they could comprise the X factor that ultimately decides the race.

Niki precedent?
Massachusetts had a strikingly similar special-election primary two years ago, one in which uncommitted voters ultimately played a critical role. In that race to replace Congressman Marty Meehan, a well-known, popular woman — Niki Tsongas — was the runaway front-runner, against several mostly unknown candidates. That race, too, had an inconvenient holiday weekend — Labor Day — right before its primary.

Three weeks before that election, Tsongas held a commanding lead, with around 40 percent support in polls, while three other candidates were tightly bunched at around 15 percent each. Polls of the current Senate race have been remarkably comparable: one in late October had Coakley with 37 percent, Pagliuca 14, Capuano 13, and Khazei four.

But in that 2007 race, it turned out that the undecideds had, in effect, decided against Tsongas and were choosing among the others. In the stretch run of that campaign, Lowell city councilor Eileen Donoghue emerged from the pack. Tsongas received 40 percent of the vote, and barely hung on to win the primary by just five percentage points over Donoghue.

Will this race have the same dynamic? The three trailing candidates certainly hope so. Says Khazei deputy field director Joe Dennison, "I think that's pretty likely, because there are so many undecideds."

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Related: Does Scott Brown’s victory mean doom for RI Democrats?, How Brown won, Chaos Theory, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Massachusetts, Eileen Donoghue, Ted Kennedy,  More more >
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