On the surface, Sen. Barack Obama should be rolling in Massachusetts. He just wrapped up the endorsement of the Bay State's beloved native son, Ted Kennedy, to go along with the support he received from former presidential candidate John Kerry, and the state's governor - and fellow up-and-coming young black politico - Deval Patrick. The state is fertile turf for the Obama campaign with highly educated voters and a huge youth bloc. In fact, as if Kennedy were not enough, Massachusetts Congressman Michael Capuano also threw his hat in the Obama ring last night.
Times should be good in the commonwealth. But they aren't.
With roughly a week to go before Massachusetts' voters cast their ballots in the February 5th primary, Obama is trailing his chief opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton, by a substantial margin. A recent Survey USA poll had the New York Democrat beating Obama in Massachusetts by a nearly 3-to-1 edge: 59 percent to 22 percent.
Despite its reputation for being a lockstep liberal electorate, voters in Massachusetts are surprisingly non-committal. According to the 2007 America's Political Almanac, approximately half of the state's voters do not identify with a political party.
"It is not a terribly monolithic state," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Cook Political Report. "This is, after all, the place where Mitt Romney [and three moderate Republican governors before him] was elected governor."
As Duffy notes, this voting bloc tends to pay more attention to the election as it approaches. And thus the majority is now operating off of strictly name-identification. It is also comprised of a group of people - independents - that have traditionally made up a substantial portion of Obama's base. And indeed, the Senator's camp feels confident it can tap into their support.
"Energy is there, people want to get to work, they are excited about Obama and the change he represents and that is not always picked up in polling," said Reid Cherlin, a spokesperson for Obama in Massachusetts. "And we frankly know we are the underdog in Massachusetts, where the Clintons are widely known."
Time may be running out on Obama in Massachusetts, but the opportunity to make the state a closely contested contest is there. As Barbara Kellerman, a political science professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government notes, there is a small but significant history of Massachusetts' voters electing African Americans. Edward Brooke was the first black U.S. Senator elected by popular vote when he ran as a Republican in 1966. Deval Patrick, elected in 2006 as the state's first black governor, won despite the fact that African Americans make up only about 5 percent black of the electorate.
Kennedy's endorsement should help. An official with Obama campaign, when discussing the uphill clime he faces in Massachusetts, noted quickly that the impact of Kennedy's endorsement would not be known for a few days. But on election day, Kennedy, along with Kerry and Patrick, could clearly aid Obama by deploying their on-the-ground resources.
"I would anticipate that both [Kennedy and Kerry] will put their own political organizations to work," said Duffy.
Most importantly, Kennedy should help Obama reach the segment of the electorate that has proved most elusive to his candidacy. "What you are going to have in Massachusetts is a curious combination," said Kellerman. "Old timers still love, love, love the Kennedy's. So I won't be surprised if the old-timers follow the endorsements. At the same time, Barack Obama has a very strong attraction to young voters... It's going to be an interesting combination."
Of course, with 22 states set to vote on February 5th, it could simply be that Obama's campaign lacks the resources or time to effectively change the dynamics in Massachusetts. One thing to watch, Duffy notes, is whether or not the senator himself feels compelled to go campaign in the state, which would reflect that the campaign believes the state is winnable. At this point in time, Cherlin notes, there are no concrete plans for Obama to travel north.
"We are not sure what his schedule is going to be. Now that South Carolina is behind us," he said, "he is going to be racing around to the different February 5th states and we hope he makes it up to New England."