Hard-to-predict independents hold key to election outcome

Polls show Brown ahead of Coakley in that segment

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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Independent voters in Massachusetts are an unpredictable breed and downright ornery when times are bad. On Tuesday, they will determine who will be the state’s next US senator in a race too close to call, capturing the nation’s attention because the fate of a national health care overhaul hangs in the balance.

Termed unenrolled voters because they are not affiliated with a party, independents constitute a majority of the registered voters in the state. Republicans, outnumbered by Democrats by more than 3 to 1, need to capture a huge majority of independents and a slice of moderate and conservative Democrats to win statewide elections.

In a series of polls that show a range of different results between Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown, independents were the key variable. In most of the polls, Brown leads Coakley among independents by at least 2 to 1.

“There’s high intensity among independents, and that has not been the case in a lot of other elections,’’ said David Paleologos, who conducted a poll for Suffolk University last week that gave Brown a narrow edge.

The trouble is, no one knows exactly how many independents will turn out in the first-ever statewide special election - in the dead of winter, no less.

“Figuring out who the likely voters are depends on the historical habits of voters, and since we have no history for this type of election in Massachusetts, we have no good models,’’ said pollster Mark Mellman, president of Washington-based Mellman Group, which is polling in this race for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Difficult to predict is the effect of the late onslaught of attack ads, mostly aimed at Brown, on Tuesday’s turnout. Typically, they are designed to discourage supporters of the targeted candidate from showing up at the polls, particularly independents, who historically are less likely to vote than partisan Democrats and Republicans. But in the volatile political atmosphere of this special election, they are also drawing more attention to the race and raising the stakes.

A poll in last Sunday’s Globe showed Coakley leading Brown by 15 points and a Mellman survey around the same time had her margin at 14. But polls later in the week showed a much closer race, with three reflecting a dead heat or Brown holding a slight lead at the edge of the margin of error. The Globe poll was the only one of five in the past week in which Coakley was ahead among independents.

Since the Globe survey, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, some of those independents have changed their opinion.

Jeanette Saitta, a 72-year-old retiree from Stoneham, was recorded as undecided in the Globe survey but says she will now vote for Coakley, the attorney general, in part because of Brown’s opposition to the health care bills in Congress.

“I was thinking of voting for Brown, but I listened to the last couple of debates and decided to vote for Coakley,’’ she said. “He’s going to be for what [former president George W.] Bush and those people stand for.’’

Tying Brown to Bush and other Republicans unpopular in the Bay State is the dominant theme of negative ads by the Coakley campaign and allied outside interest groups.

Ted Eggert, an 80-year-old retired financial analyst from Stoughton, was a Coakley supporter in the Globe poll, but said he is irked by how she conducts herself and her campaign, and has since decided to support a third candidate, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, as a “protest vote.’’

Others are holding firm.

Chuck Huyler, 60, a retired Teamster and Coast Guard reservist from Westport, is a solid supporter of Brown, a state senator from Wrentham, saying he objects to expanded government programs and the skyrocketing federal budget deficit and national debt. “Our children are going to be paying for this the rest of their lives,’’ he said.

For Judy Desmarais, a retiree in Gloucester, Coakley’s support for a national health care overhaul is a major reason she will vote for her. She said she considered voting for Brown “until I heard him say he would really be against the health bill.’’ (Brown has celebrated the prospect of being the Republicans’ 41st vote in the Senate, which would give the GOP enough votes to kill the legislation by filibuster.)

Of the state’s 4.1 million registered voters, more than 37 percent are Democrats, 11.4 percent are Republicans, and about 51 percent are unenrolled. A review of recent polls shows variability both in the voter samples, and in how the candidate fare among independents.

In the latest poll by Suffolk University, which had Brown up by 4 points, independents accounted for 45 percent of the sample, Democrats were 39 percent, and Republicans were 15 percent.

Among independents, Brown led Coakley, 65 percent to 30 percent, Paleologos said.

In the Globe survey, conducted over five days early in the month, the sample by party registration was relatively similar, but Coakley held a 5-point lead over Brown among unenrolled voters; the margin dropped to 1 point among the smaller group who truly considered themselves independent.

Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said “people who are truly independent are the least likely to vote,’’ and, in his poll, Democrats indicated they were less interested in the contest than Republicans, whom he described as “jazzed.’’

A poll released Jan. 9 by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina had Brown up by 1 percentage point in a sample that was 44 percent Democrats, 17 percent Republicans, and 39 percent independents. Among independents, Brown led 63 percent to 31 percent.

The Coakley-Brown race began to take on increased national interest after New Jersey-based Rasmussen Reports published the results of the contest’s first public poll on Jan. 5, showing Coakley leading Brown by only 9 points. A follow-up poll a week later had her lead down to 2 points.

Scott Rasmussen, president of the firm, said the sample consisted of 53 percent who identified themselves as Democrats, 21 percent who were Republicans, and 26 percent who described themselves as independents. Brown led Coakley by better than 3 to 1 among independents.

“In special elections, you cannot say that independents are leaning this way or that,’’ Rasmussen said. “What you can say is that those independents who say they are willing to show up are overwhelmingly in favor of Brown.’’