Two North­eastern pro­fes­sors com­ment belowon the issues that will decide Tuesday’s dra­matic elec­tion between Repub­lican State Sen­ator Scott Brown and his Demo­c­ratic oppo­nent, Mass­a­chu­setts Attorney Gen­eral Martha Coakley, to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Dan Kennedy, Assis­tant Pro­fessor of Jour­nalism, Col­lege of Arts and Sciences

Give us your assess­ment of who has made best use of free and paid media and why.
Scott Brown has ben­e­fited from free media far more than Martha Coakley. To some extent he has been able to take advan­tage of the way news orga­ni­za­tions operate. Even though he is a vet­eran state leg­is­lator, he’s also a fresh face in com­par­ison to Coakley. Thus we’ve seen more sto­ries aimed at intro­ducing Brown to the public, which invari­ably leads to a softer presentation.

Brown is also more telegenic and per­son­able than Coakley. That has come through in the tele­vised debates, even though he is also some­what stiff and rambling.

Both Brown and Coakley have bought time for pos­i­tive tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials focusing on their biogra­phies, and each candidate’s spots have gen­er­ally been fine. But Brown, with his emphasis on being the guy in the pickup truck, has gotten the better of it.

We’re seeing more skep­tical cov­erage of both can­di­dates in the final days of the cam­paign. In par­tic­ular, the Boston Globe has been tough on Brown’s apparent unwill­ing­ness to be asso­ci­ated with a bill he filed sev­eral years ago that would have allowed hos­pi­tals and indi­vidual health-​​care workers to refuse emer­gency con­tra­cep­tion for rape victims.

Who has won the battle of the attacks?
Last week, the Coakley cam­paign unveiled a neg­a­tive ad about Brown that seemed to do her more harm than good. Even though it was accu­rate, it was also quite harsh, and it came across as a little des­perate, given that her elec­tion is now in doubt. To make mat­ters worse, the word “Mass­a­chu­setts” was mis­spelled, and it was quickly pulled.

The Brown cam­paign gained more trac­tion than one might have expected in its wounded out­rage over the ad. Pol­i­tics ain’t beanbag, to quote an old phrase, and the reason politi­cians go neg­a­tive is because it works. In this case, though, it may have back­fired, since it punc­tured Coakley’s own image as the inevitable winner, floating above the fray.

The Coakley cam­paign was also hurt by a hyper­bolic flier sent out sev­eral days ago by the Demo­c­ratic State Com­mittee accusing Brown of wanting hos­pi­tals to “turn away” rape vic­tims. It was an offen­sive dis­tor­tion of Brown’s posi­tion, and Coakley made a mis­take by not dis­tancing her­self from it.

In the last week, the national media has really focused on this race. What ele­ments make it such a high-​​profile story?
As I argued in my weekly column for The Guardian last Tuesday, the media have fallen in love with this story because it plays to the larger, overly sim­plistic nar­ra­tive they have adopted: that the Obama pres­i­dency has failed, and that Democ­rats face an elec­toral cat­a­strophe in the midterm elec­tions this November.

In fact, though this may be a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult moment for Pres­i­dent Obama, his poll rat­ings have held up rea­son­ably well, and sur­veys show con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans remain the most despised polit­ical class in America. Obvi­ously, it is way too early to pre­dict how the midterm elec­tions will turn out.

Then, too, there is the drama of replacing the leg­endary Ted Kennedy in the Senate. The notion that a Repub­lican who’s vowed to kill health-​​care reform may suc­ceed a man who made national health care his life’s cause is in and of itself significant.

Poll results have also been intriguing enough for the race to become a legit­i­mate national story. The latest polls put Brown slightly ahead. Omi­nously for Coakley, every poll I’ve seen shows that respon­dents who are most excited about the race are also the most likely to vote for Brown.

We also have no idea who is going to vote. Turnout in spe­cial elec­tions is noto­ri­ously low. Still, the media have gen­er­ated enough interest that we’ll almost cer­tainly see higher-​​than-​​normal turnout. The con­ven­tional wisdom would sug­gest that will help Coakley, but I’m not sure that’s going to be true this time.

Who do you think will win?
I won’t call this a pre­dic­tion, because that sug­gests I’m con­fi­dent of the out­come. At this point, I would not be sur­prised if either Coakley or Brown won. But my sense is that Coakley will squeak by thanks to the Democ­rats’ supe­rior get-​​out-​​the-​​vote machinery. Pres­i­dent Obama’s appear­ance at North­eastern on Sunday will help her as well — not because it turned Brown voters into Coakley sup­porters, but because it ener­gized party activists.

Brown’s incon­sis­tent state­ments on access to abor­tion, his sneering ref­er­ences to con­sti­tu­tional rights for ter­rorism sus­pects and his ahis­tor­ical insis­tence that water­boarding isn’t tor­ture may start to catch up with him as well. Mass­a­chu­setts may not be as lib­eral as its rep­u­ta­tion, but it remains among the most lib­eral of states.

Bruce Wallin, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence, Col­lege of Arts and Sci­ences

What fac­tors have turned this from an expected win for Coakley to a very close elec­tion that could go either way?
What first made it closer than expected is the same phe­nom­enon that got William Weld and Mitt Romney elected gov­ernor here in Mass­a­chu­setts: the “like­ability” factor, or what the media often refers to as the “who-​​would-​​you-​​rather-​​have-​​a-​​beer-​​with” factor; that, plus com­pla­cency early on by the Coakley campaign.

What’s made it close since is that, as soon as there was poll data showing Brown closing the gap, it ener­gized the Repub­lican Party and its sup­porters. With Obama’s pop­u­larity num­bers slip­ping and national health-​​care reform a huge and poorly under­stood bill hanging on one vote in the Senate, many interest groups as well as the Repub­lican Party see this as a tremen­dous oppor­tu­nity to not only derail health-​​care reform in Wash­ington, but re-​​energize the Repub­lican Party.

What sub­stan­tive issues have gotten trac­tion, if any, and in whose favor?
Health-​​care reform is obvi­ously a big issue, but it’s really been cloaked in “anti-​​tax” and “anti-​​big gov­ern­ment” rhetoric, tra­di­tional Repub­lican issues. I think that is res­onating with inde­pen­dents as well as Republicans.

The neg­a­tive cam­paigning, espe­cially on behalf of Coakley, could be called a sub­stan­tive issue itself, at least in a cam­paign sense. Lieu­tenant Gov­ernor Kerry Healey’s guber­na­to­rial cam­paign suf­fered from her neg­a­tive attacks in 2006 against even­tual winner Deval Patrick.

Any sense that a lot of inde­pen­dents will vote for Brown to send the pres­i­dent a mes­sage? How seri­ously would a Brown vic­tory derail Pres­i­dent Obama’s agenda?
I think most inde­pen­dents will make their deci­sion based on their per­cep­tions of the can­di­dates, and per­haps partly on the anti-​​tax and anti-​​big gov­ern­ment mes­sage that Brown is using against health-​​care reform. But I don’t see [Brown votes] as aimed at Obama, just as I’ve never believed voters in Mass­a­chu­setts elected Repub­lican gov­er­nors to bal­ance the over­whelm­ingly Demo­c­ratic state leg­is­la­ture. Voters vote for someone they like, for the most part.

Obvi­ously, Brown’s elec­tion would change the way health-​​care reform would be passed. But Repub­li­cans can’t just keep being the party of “no.”

Who do you think will win?
The only sure winner is the local media! I guess it comes down to how hard the Demo­c­ratic machine works.