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Coakley Pollster Defends Campaign Against White House

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The blame game is fully underway. A top pollster to Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley told HuffPost on Tuesday that the White House, in attempting to blame the Coakley campaign for a potential defeat today in Massachusetts, underestimates the wave of populist fury among Massachusetts voters.

Pollster Celinda Lake said Coakley was hampered by the failure of the White House and Congress to confront Wall Street. That failure, she said, means that Democrats are being blamed by angry independent voters worried about the state of the economy.

"If Scott Brown wins tonight he'll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they've got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street."

Asked about reported criticism from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Lake said she had seen the stories. "I think it's a circling squad to protect the White House. I don't think it's very useful," she said, mixing a metaphor while getting across a clear message.

Lake said that the problem for Democrats is that voters are blaming them for the nation's poor economic conditions. "2010 is fast turning out to be a blame election and I think that either we are going to characterize who deserves the blame - whether that's banks and lobbyists and people who still want to hold on to national Republican economic strategies - or we're going to get the blame. And that's a very different tone than, often, the administration is comfortable with," she said.

The feeling among voters, said Lake, is that Washington prioritizes Wall Street over Main Street and that, despite Coakley's credentials as a state attorney general who has taken on and beaten Wall Street banks, sending her to Washington would not make a difference. "On the eve of the election, Martha Coakley had a 21-point advantage over Scott Brown on who would fight Wall Street and deliver for Main Street. But it didn't predict to the vote, because voters thought, even if they sent her down here that it wouldn't happen. 'Fine, she had done it in Massachusetts, but no one was doing it in Washington,'" Lake said. "Voters are voting for change and we have to go back to that change message. And we have to deliver on change, especially an economic policy that serves working people."

Lake pointed to polling released by the Economic Policy Institute showing that 65 percent of Americans thought the stimulus served banks interests, 56 percent thought it served corporations and only ten percent that it benefited them. "That is a formula for failure for the Democrats. We have to deliver on economic policies that take on Wall Street and we have to do it for five months, not just five days. We really have to deliver on the policies," she said.

The tit-for-tat over tactics, said Lake, risks missing the wave that is headed toward Democrats. "There's a lot of blame to go around, but the point of the matter is there's a wave. And that wave: it hit Virginia; it hit New Jersey; it hit Massachusetts," she said.

Lake also said that electing a woman statewide in Massachusetts is a difficult project. "People aren't processing [that] Massachusetts is an incredibly difficult state to elect a woman in. And Massachusetts is not that Democratic a state in behavior," she said, citing its choice of a number of statewide elected Republicans, including former Governor Mitt Romney.

But if party leaders wanted to point fingers, they should remember that they made tactical mistakes, too, she said. Lake argued that the underfunded campaign didn't have money for tracking polls, and so didn't see Republican Scott Brown's comeback until it was well underway. The campaign also didn't have money, she said, for television ads that could have shaped a populist message and defined her opponent as a friend of Wall Street. The party establishment didn't back the campaign with significant resources until the closing days of the campaign.

"I think [the criticism from Emanuel] ignores -- there were a lot of mistakes made all the way around, but number one, we had no tracking data. Number two, we said to the campaign, we have to get up [with ads on TV] earlier. Number three, in the primary, when we had money, we ran a populist economic message," she said. "And number four, we had no money and there may be lots of critiques about that, but we should remember that there were [Democratic] institutions" that could have kicked in campaign cash.

"I think everyone was too secure in how Democratic Massachusetts was and missed the fact that the angry voters are the ones turning out," she said. "We should've been up earlier and, you know, there were a lot of people in the campaign saying we should've been up earlier, but we didn't have the money to be up earlier."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee eventually dumped more than a million dollars into the campaign, but only in the last few days.

A DSCC spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Michael Dimock, associate director with The Pew Research Center, said he's seen the movement that Lake's referring to in his organization's polling. "People are really bummed about what's going on economically...Obama and the Democrats own what's going on," he said. "Independents, almost by definition, they're not driven by ideology, they're effected by current circumstances and right now current circumstances suck. We're stuck in two wars; the economy's terrible; Washington looks like a train wreck more than ever before."

Lake said that in the end, the race was going to be close even if perfectly run. "I think this was going to be a close race no matter what, honestly. Maybe we could have pulled it out, because we could have gotten Scott Brown defined earlier and we would have had money for tracking, which we didn't have," she said. "But I think this wave was coming."

If nothing changes, she said, the wave will continue wiping out Democrats. "We're either going to get buried by the wave or we're going to ride it. And we're running out of time to ride it. Somebody is going to get the blame for what's happening right now to the American public. They're incredibly angry and incredibly frustrated. And somebody's going to get credit for trying to turn it around. And right now, we're getting the blame and we're not getting the credit and that formula has to change," she said.

Independents, said Lake, are breaking 2-1 and 3-1 away from Democrats, largely because of the economy. "Independents are actually the voters most hard-hit by the economy. They're the voters most troubled by the state of the economy."

While candidate Obama split the independent vote in Virginia and won it outright in New Jersey back in 2008, independent voters broke strongly in favor of their respective Republican candidates for governor this past November, according to exit polls. Although Virginia and New Jersey voters said they remained generally supportive of President Obama two months ago, most said that wasn't the decisive factor.

In Virginia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds lost independents, he lost hard on the economy, and ultimately he lost by a wide margin, 59 to 41. Voters who declared themselves "very" concerned about the economy sided with the Republican winner, Bob McDonnell, more than 3 to 1, according to exit polls. Among voters who said the economy was the single most important question for them, McDonnell led Deeds by 15 points.

Proving the decisive factor in a 49-to-45 contest, New Jersey independents also sided with the Republican candidate -- in their case, then-Attorney General Chris Christie -- over the Democrat, incumbent Gov. John Corzine. Exit polls showed that Corzine, a former chairman and co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, actually held the advantage over Christie on the economy, but he lost 2 to 1 among independents and 67 to 25 among "change" voters, making the difference in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000 voters.

At the time, the White House was quick to stress that the gubernatorial races were not referenda on Obama's first year in office. But the President's economic track record certainly didn't help.

A month before the November 2009 elections, according to aggregate polling data collected by Pollster, a plurality of Americans disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy for the first time since his inauguration. Since then, those numbers have only gotten worse; now, an outright majority disapproves of the President's economic results, and independents take an even dimmer view of his actions on the economy.

A Quinnipiac poll conducted from Jan. 5 to 11 reports that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 41 percent who approve; independents disapprove, 61 to 34, and 52 percent of them said Obama is not spending enough time on the economy, versus 38 percent who said he's giving it the right amount of attention. Independents, like Americans generally, still overwhelmingly blame George W. Bush for the nation's current economic problems, according to the Q poll, but they don't think Obama is turning things around.

Another recent representative poll, conducted by CNN from Jan. 8 to 10, reports 54-to-44 disapproval of Obama's handling of the economy, with 47 percent of respondents naming it as the most important issue facing the country today -- trending back upward after losing ground to health care in the summer and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the fall.

Traditionally, Democrats hold a heavy advantage over Republicans when voters are asked who they trust to handle the economy. Not so today. "When six times more people think that the banks benefited from the stimulus than working families, you've got a problem. And it's not just a problem with what Martha Coakley did in her campaign," said Lake.

Jeff Muskus contributed reporting

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