Joan Vennochi

How the press whiffed on Brown’s victory

(Jim Lo Scalzo/Cbs via Getty Images)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / May 2, 2010

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GUILTY, as charged.

The press never saw the historic Scott Brown victory coming, according to a damning new report by Boston University and the Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism.

According to this analysis of media coverage, the national press checked out of the primary once it was clear no celebrity candidate would get in. The local media paid more attention, but not that much attention to Brown. When the press finally woke up in January to the possibility of a Brown victory, “. . . it was polling — not journalistic reporting — that caught the media wave,’’ the report concludes.

How did that happen? I can only speak for myself. I missed the story for a combination of reasons: over-reliance on history and Democratic political consultants.

I accepted the basic narrative that the Democrat who won the primary could not lose the special general election. The dominance of Democrats in Massachusetts and the Kennedy family, in particular, seemed to buttress that theory.

The local outpouring of emotion over Ted Kennedy’s death also seemed to support the scenario, pitched by every Democratic operative in town. A special election scheduled in the midst of a dreary New England winter would attract only the most loyal Democrats, anxious to pass the Kennedy torch to a Democrat. I wrote: “ Can Scott Brown win? Short of a political miracle — no.’’

The first hint that I might be wrong came at a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party. Everyone was talking about Brown’s new television ad, the one that began with black-and-white footage of Democratic President John F. Kennedy asking Congress to enact an investment tax credit to stimulate the economy. JFK then morphed into Brown, who continued the speech. My fellow party-goers found this extremely clever. While I attributed some of the giddy reaction to the bubbly nature of the night, I did run it by the usual Democratic suspects.

The pros found it ridiculous for a lowly Republican state senator who once posed nude for Cosmopolitan to compare himself to the great JFK. It got slightly less ridiculous after Jan. 5, when a Rasmussen poll showed Brown climbing to within 9 points of Coakley. The Democratic pushback: Rasmussen favors Republicans and uses unreliable polling techniques.

On Jan. 7, I wrote that Brown still needed a political miracle to win, but Coakley’s chilliness as a candidate was giving him hope. By then, Brown’s now-famous ads, featuring his pickup truck and kitchen, were inescapable.

A Boston Globe poll published on Jan. 10 showed Coakley ahead by 15 points, giving a false comfort to Democrats that was quickly erased by a series of stunningly bad campaign days for Coakley.

Following their Jan. 12, debate, I charitably credited Brown for a good line — “the people’s seat’’ but asked “do the people of Massachusetts really want that seat to go to a conservative state senator who comes across as an excitable boy?’’

Their answer poured into my inbox: yes, along with some other choice words about my description of their new American idol.

As the polls tightened, Democrats still insisted Coakley could pull it out. How? Democrats know how to turn out voters, Republicans don’t. Besides, President Obama was coming to Coakley’s rescue. That same weekend, I hosted a neighborhood party. More than half the people hanging around my kitchen sounded like Brown supporters and some, I knew, were Obama voters.

Election day dawned, and the rest is history.

Here’s the part of the story I didn’t get wrong. Brown sold himself as the un-Coakley. Besides that, no one really knew what he stood for and we still don’t. And that is a bigger failure than underestimating his chances for success.

So far, Brown as mystery man is working to his advantage, as pointed out in a smart new piece in Boston Magazine.

He is a vessel for every voter’s hopes and dreams. Now it’s time to figure out what else that vessel holds after letting him stage what amounted to a stealth campaign.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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