In a tight race between well-known candidates who closely align on the issues, pundits say the bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate between Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III will come down to personality versus policy.
"It’s a clash of the titans. This is really the clash of the titans," Suffolk University Political Research Center Director David Paleologos said. "You’ve got a really, really strong policy guy, at least he's perceived to be a policy guy, versus a really popular, young Kennedy."
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With a strong reputation as a progressive policy wonk and an established track record in Washington, Markey will likely leverage his experience in the debate Sunday, according to Paleologos. Meanwhile, Kennedy would be wise to appeal to the traditional "Kennedy base," Paleologos said, and emphasize his youth and energy.
"It's really about what the future of the Democratic party is going to look like in Massachusetts," Paleologos said.
But Kennedy has an important question to answer, according to both Paleologos and Political Science Professor Shannon Jenkins of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Why is he running to unseat Markey?
"Kennedy hasn’t really been able to clearly answer the question," Jenkins said. "He’s been asked that at every debate and will likely be asked that question again. I would say that’s one of the biggest things people should look for in this debate: can Kennedy answer the biggest question of this race?"
"He didn’t have a good answer other than to say, 'I can do better and it’s time for a change,'" Paleologos said. "That isn’t enough. For very serious, Democratic policy voters, that’s not a good enough answer. If he comes up with a better answer in the next four weeks, he may move some voters to his side."
Kennedy and Markey will set out on an hour-long intellectual sparring match Sunday at 7 p.m., hosted by NBC10 Boston, NECN and Telemundo. Since the politicians don't differ much when it comes to the issues, the political experts say it will likely become personal.
"It seems to me that this will be less about issue positions and more about scoring points," Jenkins said. "After having watched the last debate and how the campaign is playing out, I think both candidates will come out swinging."
"It's not about the reality, it's about the perception and who makes what the key issue," Paleologos said.
In a February poll conducted by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe, about 35% of people said they were undecided, which Paleologos said is unusually high for two well-known politicians in Massachusetts. That group, composed of people ages 18 to 35, Bernie Sanders presidential primary voters, people with a high school education or less and people who are less likely to vote, will be vital targets for the Senate hopefuls.
The polling Paleologos pointed to puts Kennedy six points ahead of Markey, though he noted that the numbers toggle in other polls. Jenkins countered that while early polls indicated that Kennedy was up considerably, subsequent polls have shown that Markey closed the gap.
"But if the candidates do not break through to the voters, it will be a challenge for Markey to overcome Kennedy’s name recognition," Jenkins said.
Kennedy needs to break those undecideds 50-50 to be well-positioned, according to Paleologos, which means he can't make any mistakes in the debate. Markey has to "be aggressive," he added, since his numbers are behind.
"Kennedy's expectation and goal has to be to get in and out of the debate without getting bloodied up too much and to hope the votes continue to break the way they are," Paleologos said. "If there’s going to be a sound bite that’s going to be used from this debate, this is the time to have a great sound bite."
Both candidates have committed to ending structural racism that pervades American society, including housing, health care, environment and transportation. Both co-sponsored legislation to conduct studies on reparations.
Universal health is a "right," rather than a privilege, according to both candidates, who have each co-sponsored Medicare for All legislation.
The pair identify climate change as a priority and co-sponsored the Green New Deal. Markey also chairs the Senate Climate Task Force.
Both candidates denounce the Trump administration's immigration policies and support making it easier for Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients to become citizens, among other initiatives.
Puerto Ricans have long been mistreated by the country in the minds of both candidates, who support self-determination for the island.
More Markey-Kennedy Debate Coverage
NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston and NECN will host the first of three televised U.S. Senate Democratic debates scheduled for the summer of 2020.