How Sen. Markey Won in the
Massachusetts Primary

(Ed Markey’s Desk ad, 2020; recreated from 1976 ad below)

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 3, 2020 — Sen. Ed Markey’s win over Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Newton) is attracting a great deal of media attention in the aftermath of Tuesday’s 55-45 percent Democratic primary election, and it should. In many ways, this was an extraordinary campaign.

Sen. Markey should be credited with running an excellent political effort in that he maximized his advantages and minimized his weaknesses. It also featured bizarre happenings in that the 74-year-old candidate received 71 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote against his 39-year-old opponent, and he re-created, virtually word for word, an ad his campaign produced for his first congressional race back in 1976 highlighting an issue that defined his career in the state legislature.

Conversely, Kennedy ran a failing campaign that never got untracked and proved strategically wrong from the outset.

Let’s go back to where this race began in order to set the stage. Kennedy announced his candidacy in October. Polling had already begun in late August, and Change Research released the first public poll of a proposed Markey-Kennedy race (Aug. 23-25, 2019; 80 registered Massachusetts voters) and found Rep. Kennedy leading Sen. Markey, 42-25 percent.

The last poll, conducted exactly a year later from Boston-based Emerson College (Aug. 25-27; 453 likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters), found Sen. Markey ahead 56-44 percent. Thus, all of the campaign movement favored Markey, and Kennedy was unable to expand outward from his original support base.

What Markey Did Right

Compare Markey’s 2020 ad (top) recreated from his 1976 ad (below):

(Ed Markey’s Desk 1976)

Sen. Markey can count. Understanding that his home county of Middlesex is the largest in the state by far — some 1.58 million people — he returned to his boyhood home in Malden where he based his campaign. His re-created 1976 ad from the first congressional campaign about “Ed Markey’s Desk” was done to emphasize his home roots in the Malden-Melrose area and the surrounding Boston suburbs that comprise the heart of Middlesex County.

During his four years in the legislature, Markey authored a bill that required judges to work full time. This was not a popular piece of legislation with his party’s leadership, and they punished him by moving his office desk into the state house hallway. The law was enacted, nonetheless, and the incident propelled him to local notoriety. In 2020, he re-cut the ad, word for word, with the exception of saying he was running for the Senate instead of Congress. He ended with the tagline, “the bosses can tell me where to sit, no one tells me where to stand.” Ironically, the issues he quotes in the 1976 ad, fair taxation, jobs, and better healthcare, are the same issues he’s talking about in 2020.

The senator took advantage of his long political career and, in particular, his well-established record on environmental and climate change issues. He ran a base coalition strategy that activated the climate change activists to rally behind him.

Those who were saying yesterday and the day before, mostly from the Kennedy camp, that Markey was somehow masquerading as a progressive on these issues is an unfair characterization. Through his long career in the House and now in the Senate as the author of the Green New Deal, Markey has been consistent on these issues for decades. He took advantage of his contacts, and base supporters within that movement came to his defense in promoting a seven-figure independent expenditure. He was successful in recruiting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to film an endorsement ad, declaring Markey a progressive leader and saying, “it’s not your age that counts, it’s the age of your ideas.”

The Middlesex roots strategic element was precisely on point, and it paid major dividends. Markey carried the county, 65-35 percent, and recorded a 115,153 vote margin. Statewide, the spread was 148,594 votes, thus underscoring the importance of Middlesex County in his overall campaign strategy, vote contribution, and final result.

What Kennedy Did Wrong

It was pretty clear that Rep. Kennedy miscalculated his Senate effort from the start. Betting that Sen. Markey would retire when it became clear to him that he would be opposing a member of the Kennedy family, the Congressman badly missed his guess. Markey’s campaign response that “this race isn’t about one family, it’s about all families,” clearly hit home and was the correct comeback retort.

In the actual campaign, Rep. Kennedy began with the wrong strategy, attempting to campaign as an outsider who vowed “to reject the policies of the past.” This message was poorly chosen for a Kennedy when considering his family’s legacy. Was he talking about rejecting his grand uncle President Kennedy’s policies, or his grand uncle Senator Kennedy’s, or his grandfather Robert Kennedy’s policies?

The early strategy set the wrong tone. The idea was to capture the younger voter and attempt to snatch the left wing faction away from Sen. Markey. The move failed on both counts.

(Kennedy Time for a Change Ad)

When dropping behind in the polls, Kennedy then reverted to the strategy with which he should have begun, which was to cloak himself in the Kennedy family legacy. At that point, however, it was too late. He was unable to re-capture any early momentum he established, and the campaign recalibration proved ineffective.

Additionally, Kennedy could never define why he was running for the Senate and opposing Sen. Markey. This was underscored when the Markey campaign produced a series of videos featuring Kennedy from years past praising Markey as being a “great senator who had made significant contributions.” That tactic, too, proved devastating.

Then, at the very end of the campaign, and something that seemed to symbolize the rest of his effort, the Kennedy campaign sent a mailer into the Worcester area with his new slogan: “Joe Kennedy Shows Up.” The new theme lacked the ability to generate an emotional response, and then they proceeded to even spell the city’s name incorrectly, displaying it as “Worchester.”

In the end, Kennedy did well in his 4th Congressional District and in parts of western Massachusetts, ironically carrying Worcester County by four points, and the city of Springfield but lost everywhere else. In addition to losing 2:1 in Middlesex County, part of which he also represented in the House, he was thrashed 59-41 percent in Boston, and lost to varying degrees in the state’s other geographic regions.

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