When Summer Arrives, Politics Ends

Why Massachusetts voters won't pay attention to politics during the summer.

Many pieces of conventional wisdom about Massachusetts politics turn out upon examination to be untrue, exaggerated, or outdated. But not this one: you can’t make Massachusetts voters pay attention to politics during the summer.

I have witnessed it time and again, in elections big and small. Campaigns try everything they can, but all efforts are wasted. It is almost impossible to significantly alter the dynamics of a race during the summer months. Whatever the state of the race is going into the summer months is likely to be the state coming out.

Take the state’s most contentious and closely watched election: Elizabeth Warren vs. Scott Brown for U.S. Senate in 2012. At the start of 2012, Brown led pretty consistently in polls by about a half-dozen percentage points. As Warren became better known during the spring, the gap narrowed. In mid-May, the Real Clear Politics rolling average dropped below one percentage point for the first time—and then stayed incredibly stable, within one point of a tie, until mid-September. At that point, as people again started paying attention, Warren took the lead, which shifted up and down some through the November election (which she won by 7.5).

In last year’s Boston mayoral race, the candidates who didn’t have high name recognition, organization, and fundraising by the start of the summer were pretty much stuck where they were until the final couple of weeks before the September primary.

The reasons are many, and, I think, have a lot to do with the way people change their daily schedules in the summer. Instead of coming home from work, having dinner, and reading or watching TV with the family, they’re playing on their work softball team, going to the kids’ games or recitals, taking the kids to the park, going to community events, hanging out with people on the block, having a drink or dinner at a restaurant patio, going to a Red Sox game, and basically being out and about. And, of course, by Friday afternoon they’re on the road to the Cape or wherever it is they’re spending the two-and-a-half-day weekend. The bottom line is that for roughly three months they’re a moving target—they’re not stationary enough to be reached, by a campaign, a news broadcast, a newspaper, a radio ad, or anything else.

Another theory is that people don’t want to think about serious things, like politics, in the summer—that summer makes people around here shift into a “beach read” mindset. This is presumably why publishers release their fluffy novels around this time, and movie studios release their easy-on-the-brain action flicks.

Some also suspect it’s a self-fulfilling notion: believing that people have checked out, campaigns and the media go into relative seclusion over the summer, saving up until people are paying attention.

Which leads to the big question: when do these summer doldrums end? And for that matter, when do they begin?

I don’t think it’s exact to the seasons, June 21 through September 21. Some say it’s the traditional Memorial Day through Labor Day window, but I don’t think that’s quite right, either. Some peg it to the weather, suggesting that the tune-out period can start or end at different times depending on how warm or rainy the spring and autumn are. Others swear it’s largely dependent on how well the Red Sox season is going. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the school year.

In theory at least, this matters quite a bit—consider the Democratic state convention, held June 13-14. That’s well after Memorial Day, but before the Solstice, and prior to the end of the school year (at least in Boston, where the school year ends this week). So, were people paying some attention to the news coming out of the convention, or had they already entered their summer news cocoons?

At the tail end, there’s going to be very little time before the primary, regardless. Labor Day is September 1. Boston students are back in school September 4. The state primary is September 9. (On the plus side for pols, folks might give up on this year’s Sox team by early August. Or earlier.)

That’s going to make it very, very difficult for anyone chasing from behind in a primary—Steve Grossman in the Governor’s race, for instance, or Seth Moulton challenging congressman John Tierney—to play catch-up if they haven’t changed the dynamic of the race by now.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. And, none of this is to say that the work campaigns do over the summer doesn’t matter; it absolutely does lay the groundwork for the quick rush of decision-making voters will face in early September.

It’s just to say that, from roughly this point to roughly the first of September, when something happening in a Massachusetts political race seems important, remind yourself that almost nobody will actually notice it.