Massachusetts Special Election

Sometimes, one should back a hunch. Always, one should write it down.

A week ago, I took my first look at the election campaigns of the two main party candidates for the Special Election in Massachusetts, USA, to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

My first impression, especially given how the Democrats had steamrollered the Republicans at the 2008 presidential and other federal elections that year, was that Scott Brown was running an effective online campaign. His Democratic party opponent, was not.

Had I backed up my gut feeling that I could see Lt Col Brown (of the Massachusetts National Guard) causing an upset on Intrade, I could have made a 630% profit, even if today's vote went against him (as of writing, the Intrade index puts Brown at 73.5 as a SELL, which given a 10 BUY last week gives a very nice return).

I even had the excuse: I gave a talk here on Monday 11th about the Wisdom of Crowds [audio recording here] and it is astonishing how good prediction markets can be.

The election itself is happening in interesting circumstances. First, the Democrats need to hold all their Senate seats if they wish to prevent the minority Republicans from filibustering proposed legislation. Assuming the voting blocks hold in the US Congress' upper chamber, 60 out of the 100 senators are required to pass a "cloture" vote (what we in the UK call a "guillotine" [heh]).

Second, over a third of the Senate is up for re-election this year. Under normal conditions, every two years 33 or 34 senators are elected in November, but this year the number will be 36, because New York state will have a second vacancy, caused (to cut a long story short) by Hillary Clinton's nomination as the US Secretary of State last year, and Delaware will have one vacancy caused by Joe Biden's elevation to the position of Vice-President.

This would normally be a difficult year for the Republicans in the Senate. Because the class up for election was voted in 2004, the GOP would be defending 19 seats (one defected to the Democrats last year so its 18). The Democrats would be defending 15, and these held off the 2004 tide so they wouldn't be easy to pick off. The GOP, demoralised and short of funds after 2006 and 2008, might have struggled to hold onto gains made six years ago.

The extra Senate contests, all being Democrat seats, offer opportunities for something to go wrong for the governing party, at the very least diluting some of the campaign efforts.

Third, health care legislation. The Massachusetts election has become at least in part, a referendum on President Barack Obama's plans for introducing mandatory health insurance. This is not the place to debate the issue, but it has drawn considerable criticism, from left and right, although often for contrary reasons. Massachusetts has its own statewide health insurance scheme, which to some extent may make some local people ask "why do we need a federal one as well?" Without the 60th Democrat (or Democrat-leaning) senator in place, the health care legislation will probably not be carried without some dubious and unpopular machination (e.g. pretending the legislation is a finance bill, or refusing to let the Republican winner be "certified" until AFTER the vote in the next few weeks).

Coming a year after President Obama's inauguration, in a state he carried by over 25 percentage points, where no Republican Senator has been elected since 1972, it will be hard not to see a defeat for Martha Coakley as a vote against the President. The damage limitation is already underway, with one leftist blogger claiming: "Coakley is arguably a worse candidate than either Jon Corzine or Creigh Deeds [respectively, the losers in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections last November], which is quite a feat to pull off."

For an election watcher, who is less interested in the politics, the lesson that looks like being learned is that clever use of online tools can compensate for lack of funds at the start of an election campaign. More than that, the buzz created by online engagement can generate supporters [here and here] and donations, not just for a national figure like Barack Obama.

I think we can look forward soon to the day when both sides in a contest will use Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube or other as yet untried cheap or free tools as their primary means of engagement. It might not be in the USA, but I'm looking forward to covering it.

A few words about the Libertarian candidate for those of my readers who like to know how the pro-freedom candidate is doing. Joe Kennedy is not to be confused with the former Democrat senator. The main coverage he's got is Democrats desperately trying to make sure no one thinks he's a relative of the departed Ted Kennedy. I've been there twice as a minor party candidate in a contest one has no hope of winning, so I respect the effort.

But there is no excuse for the ropey (that would be "amateur" for non-English readers) website, or basic errors like offering "dave[at]joekennedyforsenate.com" as one's Facebook contact details. I think we can appreciate that the candidate is not going to respond to random emails sent to the campaign, but this is one instance where either "info@campaignname.org" or the full name of the campaign manager "karl.rove@camapaignname.org" would be better. In the case of a third party candidate, I'd also consider whether one couldn't try to answer a decent proportion of the emails coming in, so perhaps it should be "joe[at]joekennedyforsenate.org", with someone filtering out the spam and timewasters.

One tool that's been pretty well used by the Libertarian Party on this occasion is Twitter: http://twitter.com/joek4Senate . From September last year, this online tool was used to gather together supporters, collect nomination paper signatories and raise campaign funding. I think a little effort could have put into personalising the page but it passes.

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