Jan. 19, 2010 -- WASHINGTON — Independent voters who helped Republicans win two gubernatorial races last year have turned Massachusetts' special Senate election into a wildly unpredictable race and could be a deciding factor at the polls today, political analysts say.
Polls show that independent voters flocking to Republican Scott Brown have erased the wide lead enjoyed earlier in the campaign by Democrat Martha Coakley. The shift is similar to those that took place before GOP wins in the 2009 Virginia and New Jersey races for governor.
Despite the state's "blue" reputation, more than half of Massachusetts voters — or 2.1 million people — are not affiliated with a political party, according to state registration figures. Among voters who are enrolled in a party, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-to-1 ratio.
"Because Democrats usually field better candidates ... independents don't have the opportunity to use their clout," David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center said of Massachusetts. "This is a race where it's being used."
Both candidates led a feverish day of campaigning Monday that underscored the national implications of the race, including the fate of President Obama's health care bill and the prospects for both parties heading into the congressional elections this fall.
Just weeks ago, polls showed Democrats with a comfortable margin for the Senate seat, which Sen. Edward Kennedy held for 47 years. Recent surveys indicate Brown is leading. The Suffolk University poll, for instance, has Brown up by 4 percentage points. Among independents, Brown led 65% to 30%.
The race has gained national attention as it has tightened in recent weeks because its outcome could affect Obama's health care bill. Brown, who opposes the measure, has vowed to give Republicans the 41st vote they need to block the legislation when it comes up for a final vote this year.
Obama traveled to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley on Sunday. Coakley used video from the appearance for a new television advertisement that began airing Monday. "Every vote matters, every voice matters," Obama says in the ad.
During the final day of the race, both candidates worked to bolster voter turnout as a winter storm threatened to dump snow on portions of the state.
Coakley, the state's attorney general, said at a breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. that the election is a chance to act on the civil rights leader's dream. "If Dr. King were here today, he'd be standing with us," she said.
Brown, a state senator, tried to use Obama's involvement against Democrats, saying that voters "want someone who isn't part of the machine or an insider."
An independent candidate, Joe Kennedy, is also running. He is no relation to the late senator.
Bruce Wallin, a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said the growth in the state's independent voters partly mirrors a national trend but also reflects the fact that Republicans until 2007 controlled the governor's office for 16 years. Brown, he said, has been successful at targeting those voters with the message that he is a political outsider.
Independent voters were instrumental in Obama's victory in 2008, but many wound up backing GOP gubernatorial candidates a year later. Part of that shift may be explained by the candidates and local factors, and part of it may reflect a national trend giving Democrats pause as the fall election nears, said Jennifer Duffy of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
The party that controls the White House has historically lost seats in midterm elections and, this year, Democrats are running in an especially difficult year because of the economy, increasing national deficits and backlash over their health care legislation.
"If a Republican wins a seat in Massachusetts, there will definitely be something to be read into this and it's basically voter anger," she said. "Frankly, even if they come close but fall short, I still think Republicans win."
Contributing: The Associated Press