Second Senate Debate: Can Brown Seize Momentum?
Monday, October 01, 2012
The contours of the race have shifted slightly since the candidates' first meeting, as both Brown and Warren launched new negative television ads, but the Democrat continues to edge the incumbent Senator out in the polls.
"In a close race like this one, debates can play a critical role," said Morgan Marietta, a Political Science professor at UMass-Lowell, which will host Monday night's face-off.
"This is especially true when voters are not very familiar with the candidates. Brown is a less-than-one-term incumbent and Warren is new to Massachusetts politics, so there is much to learn about them."
The Role of the Polls
"The big change has been Warren's rise in the polls since the first debate," said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution.
"She is riding the national tide in favor of Democrats and emphasizing a party appeal."
Warren held a 5 point lead on Brown, 43-38, in a Boston Globe poll of 502 likely voters released on Sunday. However, the survey, conducted September 21 through 27, found that 18 percent of voters were still undecided.
The newest poll's results are in line with other surveys conducted throughout September. Warren came in slightly ahead in five out of seven polls. Brown took one, and the other found the candidates tied.
"I think the most important feature of the debates is that they show us what the candidates know about the state of the race and what their strategies will be going forward," said Robert Boatright, a professor of Political Science at Clark University.
"In the case of the first debate, we got a clear indication that Brown was running behind and a preview of his negative ad campaign that picked up the following week. I suspect we will see more of the same this time."
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said that in light of those results, round two is a must-win for Brown.
"Coupled with statewide demographics that also favor the Democrats, the recent polls indicate that the race is now Warren’s to lose," she said.
"One way to turn that into a reality for Brown is for him to perform well at the debates."
While many observers scored the first Senate debate as a decisive win for Warren, Brown's subpar performance on stage last week and in recent polls may end up benefitting him this time around.
"This means that the expectations game favors Brown," Lawless said.
"That is, people now expect Warren to win. So, if she slips at all, then she will disappoint. If Brown does better than he did last week, then it might be considered a victory."
Will Voters Still Tune In?
Not including Monday's meeting, Brown and Warren still have two more debates scheduled between now and Election Day, but experts agreed that with each passing event, the candidates are likely to reach fewer potential voters.
"Generally, the first debate is most important because it attracts the biggest audience and sets the general impression," West said.
But the first debate saw a marked change in tone from Brown, as he shed his nice-guy image to go on the offensive, and the event was followed by a barrage of negative attacks from both sides, which may rope more viewers in for a second look.
"The increasingly negative tone and the questions about Warren’s character raised in the last debate should draw more attention than usual to the second meeting," Marietta said.
Boatright said he did not believe that the debates play too large a role in determining what voters think of the candidates.
"They may play an indirect role in that people will read what the media have to say and see debate clips over the next couple of weeks, but by that time the debate has already been framed by the candidates and the media," he said.
"Unless one of the candidates says something really dumb, I suspect people will have less interest in each subsequent debate."
For Lawless, however, it is precisely the repackaging of the debates by the media and the campaigns that makes them so valuable for reaching undecided voters who missed them the first time around.
"Of course, the people who watch the debates have likely already made up their minds. They are relatively sophisticated, engaged voters," she said.
"But the debates provide possible content for TV ads, as well as media analysis. So, the debate performances matter far beyond the audience who will tune in and watch them."
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