Martha Coakley Was an Ordinarily Bad Candidate

One of my very favorite political analysts, Scott Lemieux at the essential Lawyers, Guns, & Money blog, discusses Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses as a presidential candidate. It’s a fine, thoughtful piece; so obviously, I’m going to nitpick at the only questionable element, cuz hey…internet, right?

Referring to an earlier post by his co-blogger, Erik Loomis, Scott writes:

Clinton winning statewide election in a deep blue state by 12 and 36 points is hardly indicative of a great political talent, but it’s also something Martha Coakley failed to do not once but twice.

Now, far be it from me to exculpate Martha Coakley entirely from those twin electoral debacles – her “why would I campaign out in the cold?” line still makes me want to throw stuff – but she certainly did not enjoy the same level of advantages that Hillary Clinton does in the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary, or even when running for the New York Senate as Bill Clinton’s wife at then end of his term or as an incumbent Democrat there in the wave year of 2006.

Let’s start with the 2010 special election against Scott Brown. (Yeah, I just felt a little kick in the chest too. Deep breath.) Kindly notice the year I just typed. Martha Coakley ran as a Democrat in an election for federal office in 2010. During and just after the campaign, people did not realize just how bad a year for Democrats 2010 would be, so that factor wasn’t taken into account in the “first draft of history” about that election. In addition, let’s face it, Scott Brown was a charismatic candidate who ran a great campaign, both tactically and strategically. This is often forgotten as we look back, because he was so much worse against Elizabeth Warren in 2012, with his nasty “Indian Princess” sneering.

And then there is the election Coakley lost for Massachusetts governor in 2014. In doing so, she joined four of the previous five Democratic nominees for governor, going back to 1990 – John Silber 1990, Jim Roosevelt 1994, Scott Harshbarger, 1998 and Shannon O’Brien 2002. Only Deval Patrick, the victor in 2006 and again in 2010, broke the pattern. There are two notable factors about Deval Patrick. A., he got to run for an empty seat in the Democratic wave year of 2006. While mid-term elections are generally unfavorable for Democrats, owing to the difference between presidential and off-year voter turnout patterns, 2006 was a notable exception. And (2), he was the only nominee on the list who was not an insider in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, like Coakley, O’Brien, Harshbarger, and Roosevelt. (John Silber was a vicious, predatory alien who landed his craft on the BU campus  in the mid-1980s and seized power like General Woundwort. The less said about him the better.) Most of the time, the Democratic nominee loses the election for Massachusetts Governor.

Why is this? And why did Deval Patrick beak the pattern? Here’s my theory: Massachusetts is a one-party state. Every election, the voters go to the polls knowing that the Democratic Party, which is solidly in the grip of the Boston-based Beacon Hill political machine, will win a veto-proof majority in both chambers of the legislature. As a result, the election for governor is viewed as a low-stakes affair, and voters are mainly looking for a likable person who can be trusted to act as a check on the Democratic leadership. As a result, voters are willing to pull the lever for an apparently-unthreatening Republicans like Mitt Romney or Charlie Baker (who looks like the ineffectual, light-blue jacketed competing insurance agent in the Progressive “Flo” ads), if the  Democratic nominee is viewed as too close to the Beacon Hill machine. For a candidate like Coakley or O’Brien, with strong and readily-apparent insider status, this a big hill to overcome. Governor Patrick, prior to his campaign, had never held office in Massachusetts, having made his reputation as the head of Janet Reno’s Civil Rights Division. He was from Chicago, he wasn’t a Massachusetts Democrat, and he was (and remains, according to the best reports), African-American. All of this made him notably distinct from the Democratic nominees who came before him, and from Martha Coakley.

Anyway, believe my take about gubernatorial elections here, or not, the fact remains that four of the last five Democratic nominees have gotten their butts handed to them. Clearly, that’s not just luck; there is something structural going on. Now, those disadvantages could have been overcome by a good candidate, and Martha Coakley was not a good candidate. But as we go about evaluating just how bad she was, we should avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the communicative-performance aspects of politics are the most important part, and keep in mind that she actually did face an uphill battle owing to the terrain and her profile.




  1. Thanks Joe, this is a really interesting take. It also fits well with my predilection for situation and structural explanations (not totalising ones…campaign quality matters at the margins).

    Most people look bad when they lose. Most people look good when they win. Determining the relative contributions to success and failure of various factors is damned hard.


  2. Nice job explaining Massachusetts politics to an outsider.

    Something similar happened down here in 2009 when Creigh Deeds lost to Bob McDonnell. Everybody tried to explain it either in reference to the national environment or the personality of the candidates. But the bottom line is that Deeds was from Bath County.

    Bath…County. You’ve never heard of it, and for good reason. It’s one of the least populated areas in the Commonwealth. His State Senate District also included such major metropolitan areas as Buena Vista, Covington, and Waynesboro.

    Domocratic Virginia is the DC collar counties (Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William). I attended a Deeds rally in Potomac Falls.


    Combine that content with his accent and he may as well have been speaking in Klingon.

    Meanwhile McDonnell was from suburban Richmond and could actually communicate with regions that mattered.

    It wasn’t party they year, it was region.


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