By Stephen Ansolabehere, a Professor of Government at Harvard University and a CBS News Consultant
Coakley will face Republican State Senator Scott Brown, but in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts she will be the front-runner now heading into the special election on January 19th. If she wins, her victory would mark the first time that a woman has won election to the U.S. Senate or governorship in this solidly Democratic state.
Coakley won the primary race handily, posting a nearly 20-point victory over her closest challenger, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano. Early returns showed Coakley capturing 47 percent of the Democratic vote, compared with 28 percent for Capuano, 13 percent for City-Year founder Alan Khazei, and 12 percent for Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca.
The outcome was entirely consistent with pre-election surveys, which showed Coakley with a 20-point lead in the polls throughout the campaign season. The campaign, however, was much more closely fought than the final outcome suggests.
All four campaigns kicked into high-gear in September, announcing million dollar fund-raising targets. Capuano began the campaign with a $1.3 million warchest rolled over from his last House campaign. The other three started from scratch. Coakley raised $2 million in the first three weeks of September; Khazei brought in over $1 million in just one week; and Pagliuca was able to tap his personal financial resources. Coakley also received critical early support from Emily's List and other national networks of women.
Gender and the four-cornered race worked decidedly to her advantage. Coakley was the natural target of attacks in campaign advertisements and debates because she was the front-runner. However, as is typical in multi-way primary races, attacks against the front-runner didn't pay many dividends, because any voters shaken loose from Coakley would not necessarily go to the candidate who did the attacking.
That was further compounded by gender. She had a natural edge over the others among women, which comprise a majority of Democratic party identifiers. If she could hold that edge, while the male voted divided among the others, she would win handily -- and did.
There are no exit polls in this race, but pre-election polls suggested that the gender gap exceeds what is normally seen in national elections.
The strategic difficulties of the male candidates, especially Capuano, came out most clearly over the health care bill. Days after the House passed its version of the Health Bill, Martha Coakley announced she would not vote for it because of the language limiting coverage for abortions. Because Capuano had voted for the House bill, this was her only option to distinguish herself from him on the central issue of the Fall. Capuano seemed to seize the upper hand when he responded the next day. He declared her position to be out of touch with way politics are done in Washington and the need to make compromises to get a good bill.
The choice before the Senate, he argued, amounted to a once-in-a-generation opportunity and was the best way to honor Ted Kennedy's memory. Capuano's arguments, however, ignited controversy within the campaign. It further pushed women voters toward Coakley and it established her appeal among liberal voters in the party. A day later Capuano announced that he too would vote against the bill were he in the Senate. Capuano's reversal effectively ceded the most-widely debated issue of the election to Coakley.
Khazei, Capuano, and Pagliuca were further limited by their geographic bases. Khazei's core support derived from Boston and immediate suburbs. Capuano's House district covers the northwestern suburbs of Cambridge and Somerville and part of the city of Boston. Pagliuca, also from Boston, was running his first political campaign. Only Coakley had a broad geographic base of support. She came from Western Massachusetts but had represented the Boston-area as district attorney. And, only Coakley had successfully run statewide.