Coakley’s bad optics

Democratic nominee off to a bad start

Politics is a math equation. Rival candidates tally their votes, and the one with the most votes emerges. The math is cold. It’s dispassionate. But beneath the math, there’s perception. There’s a narrative. And right now, the narrative surrounding Martha Coakley’s campaign for governor has the potential to do serious damage to her campaign’s math in November’s election.

Coakley led her rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Steve Grossman and Don Berwick, by margins of between 20 and 30 points all summer. She ended up topping Grossman by just six points – a margin that makes her victory feel an awful lot like a loss. Voters know Coakley best for blowing a massive lead in her 2010 US Senate race against Scott Brown. Tuesday’s margin of victory brings all those old ghosts back to life. Coakley “prevailed in a way that will raise new doubts rather than put old ones to rest,” Globe columnist Scot Lehigh wrote Tuesday night. By running a frontrunner’s race against Grossman, and then hemorrhaging votes on Election Day, Coakley revived the old knock on her, that in her hands, no lead is too big, and no lead is safe.

Even before Tuesday’s election, doubts about Coakley’s ability to win in November were chasing Steve Grossman voters in to the camp of the Republican nominee, Charlie Baker. Those doubts helped push most of the state’s Democratic establishment into Grossman’s camp. Coakley’s showing Tuesday night only validated the doubters.

Coakley’s campaign seems to disdain efforts to shape Coakley’s public perception. On Wednesday morning, Baker was out hustling for votes at Boston’s South Station. Maura Healey’s campaign trail hustle buried an opponent who carried the backing of the governor and Boston’s mayor; Healey kicked off her Wednesday morning shaking hands outside Park Street station. Seth Moulton, the Marine who ousted US Rep. John Tierney, was shaking hands at Salem’s commuter rail station. Coakley was nowhere to be seen Wednesday morning; her only scheduled campaign appearance was a press conference at a downtown Boston hotel.

Train stations are generally terrible places for making genuine contact with large numbers of voters. But they’re great places for being seen actively soliciting votes – especially the day after an election, and especially if you’re a candidate trying to shake the knock that you’ve been outworked on the campaign trail. Voters like politicians to ask for their votes. And they can be brutal towards politicians who don’t. In 2010, Coakley left many voters with the impression that she hadn’t worked hard enough for their votes. She hadn’t acted like she wanted the office badly enough. Her scheduling over the past few days could reinforce this perception.

Yesterday, the surging Grossman flitted all over Massachusetts. His campaign scheduled 15 appearances on primary day. Grossman’s family members also blanketed area polling places. One of his sons was in West Roxbury, reaching out to voters. Ariel Goldberg, Grossman’s niece, stood outside the Waban library in Newton from 6:55 in the morning until the polls closed, asking anyone who walked by to vote for her uncle. Coakley scheduled three events – voting in the morning, lunch at an East Boston pizza parlor, and her election night party.

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Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

Coakley’s campaign said yesterday that their candidate’s time was better spent stoking their grassroots operation. The campaign had a list of 250,000 to 300,000 likely Coakley voters they’d been cultivating for months. Tuesday, they were counting on a huge volunteer operation to turn those voters out. But in Grove Hall yesterday afternoon, the campaign machinery looked creaky. Half a dozen volunteers made phone calls, while more than twice that number sat around aimlessly. Volunteers walked in off the street, but more often than not, were given nothing to do. A sound truck driver was parked outside, sleeping in the driver’s seat.

Polls in the last month of the primary put Coakley’s support in the mid-to-low 40 percent range. The poll that showed the tightest contest, an August survey by Suffolk University, had Coakley capturing 42 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, Coakley collected 42 percent of the primary vote. This either means that every undecided voter in the race broke to Coakley’s opponents, or that Coakley’s campaign machinery struggled to turn out its voters while splitting undecided voters with Grossman and Berwick. Either way, if the Coakley campaign is counting on its field machinery to overcome unfavorable optics, they’re going to need to do better than they did Tuesday.