Republican Scott Brown opened up a five-point lead over Democrat Martha Coakley according to a poll conducted on Saturday and Sunday and released hours after President Obama swooped into the state to try and save Coakley’s candidacy and health-care reform.
The survey of 1,231 likely voters by the Public Policy Polling group showed Brown with a 51 percent to 46 percent lead. It was the latest indication that Brown may pull off one of the biggest political upsets in recent history. Such an outcome would be doubly shocking given the stakes for the national party — Brown’s vote in the Senate would enable Republicans to block the president’s health-care reform bill.
A second poll of 565 likely voters, conducted Friday by the Merriman River Group and released on Sunday, showed Brown with a nine-point lead over Coakley, 50 percent to 41 percent, with the Republican holding an overwhelming 64 to 26 percent edge among independents.
“No matter how you slice the data, the only reasonable conclusion is that Scott Brown has moved from well behind to a lead somewhere between 4 and 11 points,” wrote Charles Franklin, co-founder of Pollster.com, in a Monday morning overview of polling over the last several days.
However, a Research 2000 poll conducted for the liberal DailyKos.com and released Monday just after noon showed the two candidates tied 48 percent to 48 percent.
The Brown campaign was trying to stay grounded.
“It’s a tight race, but Scott’s still the underdog against an entrenched political machine. He’s running like he’s down 30,” Brown aide Eric Fehrnstrom said.
The Coakley campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The poll results were released at the end of an intense campaign weekend, capped by Obama’s visit to Boston to rally the Democratic base for Coakley. Brown held a dueling rally in nearby Worcester. Both events drew large crowds of about 4,000 people, according to eyewitnesses.
Yet even with the excitement in Massachusetts, Brown’s continued momentum sparked growing talk of how the White House will react if Coakley loses and Democrats lose their filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate.
The White House would have two top priorities: save the health-care bill, if possible and salvage the president’s political capital.
Massachusetts secretary of state, William F. Gavin, could delay the counting of absentee ballots long enough to give placeholder Sen. Paul Kirk, a Democrat, a chance to vote in favor of a health-care bill. That approach would set off a political firestorm on Capitol Hill and would likely draw legal action from Republicans, who believe they have grounds to bar Kirk from voting if Brown is elected.
If Brown were seated before any bill were passed, getting it through likely would involve trying to pass the Senate’s version through the House without any changes to avoid another vote in the upper chamber. White House officials acknowledge privately that would be a difficult task.
There are already provisions in the Senate bill – on abortion, taxes on “Cadillac plans” and Medicare cuts — that might be non-starters for different factions in the House. Moderate House Democrats might look at the vote in Massachusetts as a foreshadowing of their own fate if they vote for the health-care bill, and decide against signing their own political death warrants.
The White House, however, was taking steps Sunday to knock down the idea that Massachusetts is a referendum on health-care reform.
“The election on Tuesday is more than about health care, right?” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Air Force One as the president returned to Washington Sunday. “That’s not the only issue that people are concerned about. They’re concerned about jobs.”
The strong emotions propelling Brown are the result of angst over job losses and the continued economic downturn, but the PPP poll Sunday was the second major survey in the last few days to show strong opposition to the president’s health-care reforms, with 48 percent against and 40 percent in favor.
A Suffolk University poll released Thursday showed 51 percent opposition and 36 percent support. However, a Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday showed 52 percent support and 46 percent opposition.
Saving face for the president, following such a dramatic rejection by one of the country’s most liberal states, would mean arguing that Coakley lost because of state issues in Massachusetts and because she was a bad candidate. The White House and its allies have already begun making both of those cases.
There were also reports Sunday that White House officials had begun to admit privately that Coakley is likely to lose. This prompted deputy press secretary Bill Burton to publicly rebut the claim on his Twitter account.
However, sources on Capitol Hill and inside the administration have made clear that they see a Coakley loss as a very real prospect, and are dispirited at the prospect.
“There is real worry and people are concerned at all levels,” a senior Democratic House aide said.
“You’d have to be in denial not to see that Brown has momentum on the ground,” wrote Frank Skeffington, a blogger at the liberal bluemassgroup.com, though he added that that the Democratic machine will “get their vote out also.”
In fact, a Democratic operative in Massachusetts said that on Saturday alone 3,500 volunteers with the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, the organization that grew out of the Obama campaign, made contact with 575,000 voters. The state cast 3.1 million ballots in the 2008 presidential election.
But the PPP poll showed the independents in Massachusetts continue to flock to Brown by a two to one margin. Brown led Coakley 64 percent to 32 percent among unaffiliated voters.