Lessons learned

LESSONS LEARNED…. Given that the results in Massachusetts were not quite what the political world was expecting as of, say, two weeks ago, there will be plenty of “what just happened?” questions over the next several days. We’re already hearing ample talk about what lessons Democrats should have learned from this painful defeat.

I think it’s probably a mistake to overstate the larger significance of a special election 10 months before the midterms, but it’d be foolish to pretend Scott Brown’s victory was some random fluke, never to be repeated again.

With that in mind, here are my Top 5 lessons to be learned from the Mess in Massachusetts.

1. Successful candidates hit the campaign trail. Candidates seeking office should probably campaign while voters are making up their minds. It’s old-fashioned thinking, I know, but winning a primary and then dropping out of sight — while your opponent is working hard to reach out to voters — tends to be a bad idea.

For much of the post-primary period, the campaign calendar on the Coakley website was blank. Dave Weigel noted yesterday, “From the primary through last Sunday, Scott Brown held 66 events of varying size. Coakley held 19.” Part of this is because Brown had to introduce himself to voters who had no idea who he was, while Coakley was already well known. But 19 events in 40 days is evidence of a Senate candidate who was taking victory for granted — and in the process, throwing victory away.

2. Voters like likeable candidates. Some voters care more about policy and substance than which candidate they most want to have a beer with, but these voters tend to be outnumbered. We’ve all seen races in which the thoughtful, hard-working, experienced candidate who emphasizes substantive issues loses out to the fun, likable opponent (see 2000, presidential election of).

The Massachusetts race fits this model nicely. Chris Good noted this week, “[W]hile Coakley focused on the issues in this race, Brown can credit his lead in multiple polls to his own personality and personal image, which he crafted with a series of successful ads portraying him as an average, likable guy.” It’s tempting to think voters in a mature democracy, especially in a state like Massachusetts, would prioritize policy over personality, and appreciate the candidate who “focused on the issues.” But yesterday was the latest in a series of reminders that personal qualities often trump everything else.

3. Saying dumb things will undermine public support. When the pressure was on, Coakley insulted Red Sox fans — twice. She kinda sorta said there are “no terrorists in Afghanistan,” and that “devout Catholics” may not want to work in emergency rooms. When the Democratic campaign realized it was in deep trouble, and readied an effort to turn things around, it had trouble overcoming the distractions caused by the candidate’s public remarks.

Maybe, if the campaign had been in gear throughout the post-primary process, Coakley would have been sharper on the stump, had more message discipline, and been less likely to make these costly, distracting errors.

4. Learn something about your opponent. Because the Democratic campaign assumed it would win, it didn’t invest much energy in understanding its opponent (who, incidentally, won). They didn’t identify Brown’s weak points, and seemed to know practically nothing about his background. When the race grew competitive, nearly all of the damaging stories about the Republican candidate came from well-researched blog posts, not the campaign’s opposition research team. “Get to know your opponent” is one of those lessons taught on the first day of Campaign 101, and campaigns that forget it are going to struggle.

5. Enthusiasm matters. No matter how confused and uninformed Brown’s supporters seemed, they were also motivated. Dems liked Coakley, but they weren’t, to borrow a phrase, fired up and ready to go.

Looking ahead, chances are pretty good that organized right-wing voters will be mobilized and itching to vote in November. They certainly were yesterday. Democrats can’t expect to do well with an unmotivated, listless party base.