A recent poll, commissioned by a Democratic candidate for state office, reconfirmed the enduring popularity of the controversial incumbent senator. That professional survey of 610 primary voters turned up favorable/unfavorable ratings of the senator by this home state constituents that would leave almost any other politician ecstatic.
Here are just a few of the senator's scores from various groups -- the first figure is the percentage of voters rating the senator as favorable, the second, the percentage of voters rating his unfavorable:
Independents, 77 to 19; Catholics, 77 to 17; voters with annual earnings between $12,000 and $30,000, 77 to 19; retired voters, 75 to 19; and those most likely to vote, 77 to 19.
After nearly 20 years of landslides, the emotional crush of the Massachusetts electorate on Sen. Edward Kennedy looks both hopeless and permanent. Like other such infaturations, this one is short on logic and consistency. The Massachusetts voters, like indulgent parents, don't usually ask their favorite son where he's going, where he's been or what he did while he was out -- philosophically or politically. Kennedy's exceptional home state popularity continues essentially independent of, and frequently in spite of, the senator's positions and legislative voting record.
The same Massachusetts poll gave President Reagan a fovorable job rating of 65 percent to 27 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. It seems highly unlikely that many other Catholic politicians, in a majority Catholic state, could support public funding for abortions, oppose tuition tax credits for parochial school students, and still limit their unfavorable rating among their co-religionists to a mere 17 percent.
That liberal Kennedy record has been an impractical model for other Democratic candidates to follow. Defeat has lately been the fate of Democrats who, out of either conviction or convenience, sought to capture some of the Kennedy electoral magic by copying the Kennedy positions on issues. In Massachusetts, it's perfectly okay for Sen. Ted to keep tabs on Biafra or Bangladesh. But other officeholders at the federal level had best concentrate on locating Auntie's missing Social Security check.
The Massachusetts constituency that had loved him too well, if unwisely, did little to prepare Kennedy for the 1980 disaster that was his presidential campaign. Home state voters had not bothered to ask Kennedy why he wanted to be president. Their only question was when. The senator, upon leaving home, found himself cross-examined on his big-spending record in a time of austerity and his anti-Pentagon votes in a period of anti-Soviet feeling.
That presidential campaign was, by every objective measurement, a disaster. Of the nearly 20 million Democratic primary voters in 1980, Kennedy could not win the support of even 38 percent. He failed to win 25 percent of the vote in any southern state. He lost Ohio and Maryland and -- by more than 25 percent margins -- he lost Illinois, Indiana, Texas and Wisconsin, Kennedy, it became evident, was an unacceptable alternative to a truly unpopular incumbent president. To his credit, throughout Kennedy was the unwhining professional, never blaming either the press or the process for his problems.
In 1980, former Democratic national chairman Robert Strauss tweaked Kennedy fans by stating, "Rose didn't any triplets." In Massachusetts, where objective press reports describe someone as "a longtime intimate of the Kennedy clan," that's not the view. In his home state, Ted Kennedy is still very much both brother of and successor to Jack and Robert.
The New Right, which uses the threat of Ted Kennedy to balance its own checkbooks through direct mailings to its fearful pen pals, is without a real challenger to the senator. This could be embarrassing to the clients of Richard Viguerie when they try to explain why, with millions of patriots' dollars, they failed to defeat Kennedy in 1982.
The Kennedy politics may not play in Peoria. But Massachusetts, which last year gave him the solace of a big win over Jimmy Carter and gave its electoral votes to Ronald Reagan, seems eager to give its very favorite son six more years in the Senate and another try for the White House. Issues or not.