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Dan Payne

Coakley’s failure to communicate

By Dan Payne
January 21, 2010

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IN THE film “Cool Hand Luke,’’ prison warden Strother Martin, just before he lays a whipping on an incorrigible convict played by Paul Newman, delivers a classic line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.’’

That describes Martha Coakley’s campaign, which failed to communicate both her plans as a senator and the über conservatism of Scott Brown.

When they finally got around to revealing that Brown was no moderate, momentum had shifted and, in a short campaign, momentum is destiny.

Coakley’s handlers admitted they were complacent. Two weeks into the general election their own poll showed her leading 51-to-32 percent. Not a great number. They also knew healthcare reform was a tossup with voters.

They believed, fatally, that they could repeat what had worked in the primary. In the fall, she relied on her statewide organization, ran on her record as attorney general, and avoided conflict with her opponents. Her only bold move - saying she wouldn’t support a health care bill that contained abortion restrictions - probably accounted for her twenty-point margin of victory. In the end, Democratic women decided she, not any of her three male opponents, was the right choice.

But independent women in the general election decided it was more important to send a message, not a woman, to Washington. After the primary, her campaign never made the first-woman argument.

Democratic candidates in Massachusetts aren’t used to running in general elections that matter. Coakley had never faced a cranky electorate that wasn’t predisposed to vote Democratic. She had no experience fighting a Republican to control the terms of a political decision.

To say she wasn’t a good communicator is an understatement. As a friend told me, Martha Coakley made Mike Dukakis look like James Brown.

Scott Brown beat Coakley in news coverage, TV and radio advertising, and debates. Moreover, Coakley failed to tell voters how very conservative Brown is.

The third-party, anti-Brown TV spots that came from Washington were dark and menacing; they were so dark I wondered if someone had fiddled with the brightness control on my TV. Those ads hurt Coakley. .

Coakley’s positive TV spots lacked a spontaneous feeling and showed her only in staged situations. By contrast, Brown’s spots looked “real.’’ They were literally brighter and upbeat, showing him with the truck, and in the streets, engaged with average people.

In the crucial final days, Brown’s allies made a TV spot capturing Coakley at night outside her Washington fundraiser thrown by, of all people, healthcare lobbyists.

Brown is semi-famous for having posed semi-nude for “Cosmopolitan’’ magazine. The Coakley campaign could have had fun with that, arguing that he is once again posing, this time as a moderate, and covering what he didn’t want you to see.

Coakley’s campaign also didn’t understand the anger and fear in the electorate. Unemployment, Wall Street bonuses, stimulus money that didn’t stimulate, small businesses that can’t get loans and US Senators practically bribed to back health care reform. That was the wave that Brown caught and rode to victory.In November, incumbent New York mayor Michael Bloomberg almost got drowned by that wave; he spent $90 million of his own money and nearly lost to an unfunded nobody.

Coakley was undermined by a State House struggling to be relevant and respected. She is, after all, a state official and based her candidacy on her record as attorney general, which made her look like the status quo.

When speaking of Washington, she didn’t provide one ounce of protest, save opposing the surge in Afghanistan.

Brown pulled off the upset of the 21st century, but has only a two-year ticket to fill the balance of Sen. Kennedy’s term; he has to run again in 2012. If he aligns himself with right-wing Republican Senators like Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint, Massachusetts voters won’t fail to communicate their displeasure at the ballot box.

Dan Payne is a Boston-area media consultant who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country. He also does political analysis for WBUR radio.

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