Brown Counting On 'Protest Voters' For Senate Upset04:03

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State Sen. Scott Brown shook hands with evening commuters at North Station recently, and quite a few of them said they are going to vote for the Republican.

"He's a change, you know?" said Nick Melanchook, of Saugus. "He's different than what's going on here. It's time for a change in the state."

"It's a fresh voice in the Senate," said Mark Miller, of Dracut. "I'm kind of sick of what's been going on, just a lot of the same old politics."

Republican state Sen. Scott Brown talks to a potential voter at a campaign stop in Medfield. (Fred Thys/WBUR)
Republican state Sen. Scott Brown talks to a potential voter at a campaign stop in Medfield. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

The first poll of the general election campaign in the race for the state's open U.S. Senate seat found Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley in a statistical tie.

The poll, released by Rasmussen Reports on Tuesday, has Coakley leading Brown 50 percent to 41 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

"What people are telling me is this isn't JFK's party anymore," Brown said. "They're upset at the way things are going. Martha and the other candidates that ran do not represent anything that they believe in. The out-of-control spending and taxation, in particular, and the fact that how are we going to repay a lot of the debt?"

"We have a highly volatile electorate," said Eric Fehrnstrom, one of Brown's political advisers. He pointed to New Jersey, where Barack Obama beat John McCain by 15 percentage points in the presidential election, but last November elected a Republican governor.

Fehrnstrom indicated that Massachusetts could be the next Democratic state to elect a Republican. "There is a high degree of dissatisfaction among the electorate with spending and tax issues at both the state and the federal level," Fehrnstrom said, "so we think we have that going for us."

Brown is not raising the kind of money that Coakley has been able to raise. But Ferhnstrom said Steve Pagliuca's spending in the Democratic primary taught everyone that it's not going to be money that wins the election, but a candidate's ability to identify his passionate voters and then make sure they go to the polls.

"It's going to be a low turnout," Fehrnstrom said. "I don't know how low the turnout will be because we've never had, in Massachusetts, a special statewide election. There is nothing that allows us to predict with any high degree of reliability what this election is going to look like."

Fehrnstrom was encouraged by an unexpectedly high turnout in the Republican primary. Brown's primary victory was essentially a foregone conclusion, yet 160,000 people turned out to vote — many of them independents who could have voted instead in the hotly-contested Democratic primary.

Brown's team said those independents chose to cast a protest vote against Democrats, and they're counting on the same group to turn out in the general election.

The Rasmussen poll found that Brown has a large lead among independent voters — 65 percent to Coakley's 21 percent.

But Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, sees a problem with a strategy that counts on independent voters.

"Those people who are either registered as Republicans or registered as Democrats are far more likely to show up in any election, in particular in special elections," Smith said. "That's largely because the undeclared, independent, un-enrolled voters — whatever you want to call them — follow politics less. They're less interested in elections, and they're going to be less likely to turn out and vote."

Still, Brown's campaign is calling more than a million people who vote regularly, including independents. His team said he has the energy, the excitement and the angry voters on his side to pull off an upset that would send a Republican to fill Edward M. Kennedy's seat.

This program aired on January 6, 2010.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.