Why Ed Markey won Lowell

June 25, 2013 – Lowell – Markey, 5656 (57%) – Gomez, 4150 (42%)

Why did Ed Markey win Lowell? I don’t know for sure but since I was involved in his campaign from the beginning, I figured I’d offer up some observations for whatever they’re worth. A more fact-based answer might come once we get hold of the voter list that will show who actually voted. Since the number who voted in this election was almost exactly the same as the number who voted in the last city council race, the first thing I want to find out is whether it was the same 9900 people who voted in both.

The single biggest factor in Markey’s victory here came from beyond the city borders and beyond the borders of the Commonwealth, for that matter. The extremism of the national Republican Party drove voters to Ed Markey’s column. That’s why Markey ceaselessly drove home core issues like women’s rights, an assault rifle ban and protecting the environment. The voters responded positively. That’s also why hollow attacks against Markey’s long tenure in Washington never gained traction.

Back in January 2010 a majority of the Commonwealth’s voters allowed their hopes for bipartisanship to lead them to vote for Scott Brown almost because he was a Republican, not in spite of that. But as the voters (and Scott Brown) discovered, having “bipartisanship” as your core value in today’s US Senate makes for an ineffective and short time in office. So Ed Markey won Lowell by 15%, just as Elizabeth Warren won the city by 18% last fall. (The same dynamic will not exist in next year’s statewide campaign for governor since voters will rightly understand that the craziness of the national Republicans will not necessarily infect a moderate member of that party who ends up in the governor’s office with a legislature composed almost entirely of Democrats).

While national issues convinced a majority of voters to favor Ed Markey, there was no guarantee people so deciding would actually vote. That’s where the grass roots volunteers come in. After fighting through blizzards and sub-zero wind chills in February to collect thousands of nomination signatures, a core group of about three dozen volunteers started canvassing Lowell for Ed Markey. “Canvassing” means having a list designated by the statewide campaign headquarters (HQ) of particular voters and their addresses. The canvasser goes to the address and rings the bell. If someone answers, the canvasser launches into a script provided by HQ and records the result (Markey – Gomez – Undecided). If no one answers, the canvasser leaves a piece of campaign literature at the door. When the “shift” is over – and a shift is about 50 doors in the same precinct which takes about 3 hours to accomplish – the canvasser returns the score sheet to the local headquarters where the voter-by-voter results are quickly entered into a central database.

The content of the script varies based on the objectives of statewide HQ. Sometimes it’s a simple voter ID, sometimes it’s to persuade undecideds, and in the final week it’s all about ensuring ID’d supporters actually vote. The weekly results aren’t filed away; they’re part of a dynamic system that continuously refines itself as the campaign progresses.

The modern statewide campaign is all about knocking on doors. There’s lots of phone calls, too, but they’re primarily to recruit more volunteers to canvass and to reach voters in apartment buildings and condominiums that are inaccessible to a volunteer on the ground. Traditional activities like holding signs at street corner visibilities or mailing “Dear Friend” cards aren’t considered by strategists to be effective or wise expenditures of effort or money. That said, holding signs does have value as a “gateway” activity for new volunteers who might not be initially comfortable with the idea of door knocking. After a few nights holding signs with other volunteers, the new person’s willingness to canvass will hopefully evolve.
This single-minded devotion to door knocking by the higher HQ can create considerable friction with the local volunteer force, especially in a community that has a well-organized party campaign apparatus. Fortunately for Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Lowell didn’t have that. There were no bad habits to unlearn. It’s no coincidence that almost none of the three dozen top canvassers in the local Markey campaign had ever been involved in any local campaigns (for many of them, last fall’s Warren campaign was their first). A great effort for city council or state representative still has at its core the candidate and a handful of friends sitting around a kitchen table plotting strategy. Modern statewide campaigns are very different. They’re based on scientific inquiry, on what quantifiably produces good outcomes, on the research of people with doctorates in political science. What happens in one community is just one piece of a statewide puzzle. To someone schooled and successful in local politics, the statewide campaign’s strategy for that person’s community might seem disjointed, even irrational. In such a situation, it’s very tempting for the experienced local volunteer to proclaim “I know what works in my community” but it’s important to fight that urge and accept direction from higher HQ as almost an article of religious faith.

The most important person in this scenario is the field organizer (FO) hired by the campaign to oversee a particular city or region. That person has an incredibly difficult job. Almost always in their 20s, field organizers must persuade the local volunteer force, usually composed of people the age of the field organizer’s parents, to execute the campaign’s very demanding plan for that community, a plan as mentioned above that is often at odds with the instincts and experience of the volunteers. In Lowell, the Markey campaign was both fortunate and wise to hire as its field organizer Ariela Gragg who served a similar role here in last year’s Warren campaign. (Full disclosure: the other Lowell field organizer for the Warren campaign was my son Andrew but he’s living in Cambridge now and only got involved in the local Markey effort as a volunteer in the final week of the campaign).
And then there were the volunteers, a great group of hard-working, dedicated individuals who never complained and never second-guessed the campaign strategy but just went out an executed it. Journalists who write or speak about a “Democratic machine” in Massachusetts are clueless. It’s just people from all races, classes and backgrounds who feel passionate about national politics and have made the commitment to do what they can to influence the outcome.

Another group that is clueless are all who attribute Democratic victories in urban areas to the “Mitt Romney 47%” meaning those who depend on government for their existence. That’s BS, of course, but it makes some people feel better (or is it feel superior?). Ironically, the most reliable Republican voters in this state seem to be current or retired government employees, but that’s another story. As for the Democratic success in urban communities, it’s no secret that a lot of people are moving into cities (and staying in cities) because – they like cities. They like the diversity, the culture, the variety of life. Such people tend to be progressive in their politics. This is not limited to Lowell; it’s a national phenomenon. Such people formed a big slice of the Markey coalition in Lowell. Another big piece of that coalition was the Cambodian community which is proving itself to be a very important force in Lowell politics. The same can be said of the very active, though relatively smaller, African community. The third and final slice of the Markey coalition was people born during the Great Depression or World War Two. In their 70s and 80s now, these people are not just the most reliable voting cohort, they’re also the most reliable Democratic voters. One thing that unites these three disparate groups is a sense of empathy for those who struggle in life. And two of these groups – those who embrace city life and those who are members of our newer ethnic groups – are only going to get bigger and wield more influence in the city and the region.

So that’s my take on why Ed Markey won Lowell by 15%. It’s not scientific and maybe rambles on too much, but there it is.

13 Responses to Why Ed Markey won Lowell

  1. Marie says:

    As one who struggled to accept this new approach, I agree with your analysis. As one who lives in a Greater Lowell town – I wonder what the “political” future holds for us… the contradictions of who and why votes are cast continue to make me shake my head.

  2. PaulM says:

    Dick, Thanks for unpacking this process. Outstanding analysis and insights. A few thoughts: 1) We still have a political system in which a small but dedicated group of local campaign workers can help achieve an important result; there was no Markey’s Army sent in from metro Boston to make the push in Lowell; 2) While methods are studied and refined, democracy on the ground really depends on individuals, motivated by issues for the most part; and 3) Is it likely that veterans of the broader campaigns of Niki Tsongas, Elizabeth Warren, Eileen Donoghue, and Ed Markey will take up places in the local infrastructure like party committees, appointed municipal boards, and council and school committee campaigns as workers and or candidates themselves? Can regional and statewide campaign experience channel into citywide activism?

  3. DickH says:

    Paul, I certainly do think that at least some of the people who volunteer locally on statewide campaigns will get involved in local campaigns, activities and issues. Others, though, are focused on almost exclusively on national issues.

    One aspect of both the Markey and Warren campaigns that I found problematic was a compartmentalization of the campaign at both the state and the local level. The higher HQ is divided into various departments. “Field” controls the campaign’s locally-based field organizers (who are paid staffers) and have a single-minded devotion to the metrics of doors knocked and phone calls made. Little else matters. Then you have the HQ Political staff which interacts with local elected officials. Add in the HQ Press operation which deals with the local media. The end result is that in the local level, there is very little coordination of those three aspects of the campaign. A better effort at the local level would integrate those three so that they would be mutually supporting and not done in isolation. How to do that effectively is not easy. More on that later, perhaps.

  4. SamM says:


    I concur with your opinion. Ed Markey campaign benefit tremendously from success of Niki Tsongas, Liz Warren and Eillen Donoghue. Please also remember, the Democratic party has nearly tight political control in the Commonwealth. In the current, political climate, it is nearly impossible for any Republican to win a statewide office in the Massachusetts just like it is nearly impossible for a Democrat to win a statewide office in Texas.

  5. Joe S says:

    The competition has increased for an ever smaller portion of the electorate. Not only is the total vote disappointly low, but within that population the great majority are die-hard partisans. Being able to target voters who are favorable, or have the chance of being convinced, is a key to a successful campaign. Recent history shows that the Democrats do that task well in Lowell, but have not made in-roads in the suburbs.

    If the HQ better integrated themselves with successful local organizations there would be fewer faux pas such as “dear friend” salutations to solicitation letters.

  6. Mr. Lynne says:

    “The same dynamic will not exist in next year’s statewide campaign for governor since voters will rightly understand that the craziness of the national Republicans will not necessarily infect a moderate member of that party who ends up in the governor’s office with a legislature composed almost entirely of Democrats.”

    The danger is that the dynamic won’t exist in the minds of the voter, but where it does and will exist in the mind of the Republican candidate. This could happen in the case of candidates that have higher aspirations beyond the governor seat. If this happens and such a candidate gets elected, your best case scenario is getting a Romney who misjudges how for right to govern for one’s later aspirations.

  7. Carol Carbonell says:

    Thank you for this wonderful analysis!
    One of the phrases that struck me was, ” single-minded devotion to the metrics of doors knocked and phone calls made. Little else matters.”
    For me what matters is people. When speeches are given about door knocks, I cringe. We cannot lose sight of what motivates volunteers (operative word VOLUNTEER) or we may lose volunteers. Contact tells you what is happening on the ground. Am I a postman delivering campaign literature or am I getting info for the database? Dual emphasis may be needed. Motivating and rewarding field organizers on numbers alone may lead to chastising them later because the election results were disappointing.
    The analysis on voter groups interested me.
    Cubans, Africans and others who come as refugees gain citizenship more easily than Mexicans, Haitians and other groups We cannot lump them together. Old time Cubans felt betrayed by the D.s (Bay of Pigs). Africans know what happens when wedge politics grows cancerous as do Asian groups. Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
    The older generation with their first hand knowledge of life before the New Deal will be leaving us bit by bit. They want to be assured that the promise of the New Deal is kept and not chiseled away at by political ‘cheap chiselers’
    Our young men and women face financial slavery either from minimum wage employment or college debt from trying to escape minimum wage employment. They need relief.
    How do we address the concerns of different groups versus the manipulation of different groups within the electorate and within the campaign is what I am getting at.

  8. Linda Copp says:

    A brilliant analysis of campaigns and campaigning on both the local and national stage. There are disconnects most certainly, however and for the most part, Lowell functioned well without the need for oversight from HQ other than, the almost required rally wherein those above came to insite our enthusiasm and ignite new doses of commitment and energy. Being older myself, my commitment was already there and these moments were not going to rally my commitment, I was already doing whatever was physicaly possible for me to do. However, they did give me the opportunity to meet face to face with persons, I respected and admired. They gave us a chance to thank the Niki Tsongas’s of the world for their service to our community and our nation. It was wonderful to hear from Ed Markey, Nikin Tsongas, certainly Elizabeth Warren and Eileen Donoghue and especially wonderful to meet Representative Gabbard from Hawaii, who is a champion of overcoming the odds. She was inspiring to meet and to hear her story.
    We were fortunate in the Markey campaign to have brought a core of good people from the Elizabeth Warren campaign to work for Markey. They were “the Grassroots” every one refers to, those knockers on doors, everyday people like myself, giving slices of their life away to do right by their candidate and the right thing for their community and in this case, their nation. Every candidate now, speaks of wanting a Grassroots Organization” which has become much like the “Democratic Political Machine” an entity that sounds powerful and totally Organized to deliver the win but is only as strong as the number of people in each pocket of the state volunteering their time and willing to make this kind of a physical commitment. Soldiers are necessary for success and we need more because it becomes too difficult to lurch from campaign to campaign without more volunteers.
    There is much I would be interested in hearing once the Markey people go over their numbers. I myself would like to know how many people we actually spoke to, turned out to vote versus the number of attempts made where literature was left for their perusal.
    I myself will be working at the local level with candidates in my community for the first time. It will be nice to work directly with them and learn form them as well. There are good people all around us working hard who need a hand and I am anxious to help. Once again your analysis Dick is very apt as to what and how these local elections work because they are not party based, but individualy based.

  9. Jay Mason says:

    my own experience has taught me the surprising truth that individual actions can make a difference. Seeing the small but empassioned effort behind the Markey campaign have a positive result is just the latest example.

    My dream is to see the realization of this access to power and change result in a groundswell of political and environmental activisim. We hold the key to inspire and effect change in our collective hands. We simply need to act on what we believe in.

  10. Arthur says:

    It strikes me as premature to attribute Senator Markey’s victory to voter distaste for National Republican policies.There was a conservative attack on Mr.Gomez as too liberal etc.We do not yet know how damaging that was to his chances.One thing to look for in the official results is the blanks as some conservatives were calling on voters to go to the polls and submit a blank ballot in protest of Gomez.Did people who usually support Republicans stay away in protest ?
    Turnout collapsed. In Lowell : it was only about 29% of what we saw in the 2012 Presidential and about 48 % of turnout for the 2010 Special. The drop off impacted both candidates .Gomez got about 29.7 % of the vote Brown received in 2012 and Markey had 28.5% of that Warren managed in 2012.
    Some of the drop was due to external factors – time of year ,weather ,news overshadowing the election.

  11. Judith Durant says:

    Thank you for this excellent analysis, with which I absolutely agree. But I think you left one thing out and that’s the human touch canvassing brings. I know I did not knock on doors and spout the script dictated by HQ to whoever answered. I tried to find a connection with the person on the other side of the door and geared my Markey pitch to what that was. And where the campaign directive is to say “Have a nice day” to those who say they’re voting the other way, if it felt safe I would engage those people. I don’t know how many actually became Markey votes, but I know that I gave many pause for thought. It’s also nice of you to say that no one complained about our marching orders. I did from time to time, but I of course took it in stride and moved on. I know you heard me complain at least once ;-)

  12. DickH says:

    Judith, you’re absolutely right about that “human touch” element. Every answered door presents a different situation and the canvasser has only a second or two to size up the situation and select the right pitch to use which means using one’s judgment and observations to modify the script while still getting the information sought by the campaign as part of its larger effort.

  13. Nancy P says:

    Thank you for the excellent analysis (And I’ve had that conversation about this post with a number of fellow volunteers) I too took the Markey script and adapted it to my reasons for supporting him and adjusted it to the person who answered the door. I also tried to make a personal connection by commenting on their flowers, home, etc. so that we left a good impression. What made going door to door interesting and fun was talking to voters and fellow volunteers; otherwise it was just dropping lit, ie postman.
    I find there is a disconnect usually between campaign volunteers and local elected and Democrat officials. It is disappointing to out there knocking on doors making phone calls, and having a real commitment to electing a good Democrat candidate and only see some of local official(s), both from the party and elected, at a high profile event when the candidate is present.. How to get the volunteers and officials connected is a challenge, but if they don’t get connected, what will our future be?.
    Some of the volunteers from Tsongas/Warren/Markey etc, are already involved in their communities serving on boards and other organizations. The adage, If you want something done. ask a busy person; sure holds true for volunteers I know..