It Was (Primarily) the Economy, Stupid

In my last post I posited two questions that Brown’s victory raises:

  1. Why did he win?  In particular, was it a referendum on health care and Obama?
  2. What are the implications for the 2010 midterm elections?

Each is worthy of a separate post.  Let me start today by analyzing the roots of Brown’s victory.  There is a large contingent of pundits that see this election as a referendum on Obama and health care.  For an example, see this John Judis article, in which he writes:  “Yes, a less inept candidate might have beaten Scott Brown, but if Obama and his program had been more popular in Massachusetts, even Coakley could have won–and by ten points or more.”  Judis goes on to selectively (in my view) cite some data to make his case. Specifically, he argues that Obama’s fall in the polls is driven even more by health care than the economy: “What I found in Obama’s case is that at the beginning of last fall, when Washington began debating his health care plan in earnest, his level of disapproval began to exceed the rise in the unemployment rate.”  In other words, disapproval over health care outweighs economic concerns.  I don’t think the argument is very convincing and I think it’s not very relevant to explaining the Massachusetts’ Senate vote.

Of course, a major difficulty we have in untangling the impact of these issues is the lack of reliable data, in the form of exit polls, or post-election data, by which to analyze voters’ actions.  Rasmussen conducted an Election Day poll, but I don’t have access to its cross-tabs.  However, there is another source of data: the pre-election polls.  These aren’t ideal, because they don’t directly sample those who went to the polls on Tuesday, but they are the best we have. Keep in mind, moreover, that these polls were relatively accurate in predicting the outcome.  A careful examination of the prepolling data suggests it was primarily the economy, and not health care or views toward Obama, that drove the Massachusetts votes.  This is not to say that views on health care played no role, but that they were secondary to concerns over the economy.

So, why did Brown win?  Presidential elections, I have long argued, turn on fundamentals: the political grist from which candidates form their campaign strategies.  In Massachusetts, the fundamentals were as follows:

  1. An unemployment rate that had climbed during the past year from 7.4 to 8.8, with more than 300,000 workers without jobs.  The national unemployment rate, meanwhile, hovered at about 10%
  2. An electorate that was lukewarm – but not totally opposed – to a “universal” health care insurance system.  Massachusetts voters generally support the idea of the use of mandates to extend the risk pool by forcing everyone to buy insurance, a system they have had since 2006.  But in the three years the system has been in place health insurance and medical costs have gone up, in part because people have become adept at gaming the insurance system by signing on for short-term coverage when illness looms, then dumping it and opting  to pay a penalty for not  having insurance at other times.  At the national level, meanwhile Democrats were trying to pass a similar program.
  3. A statewide government, and national delegation, dominated almost exclusively by Democrats.  At the national level, all three branches of government were controlled by the Democratic Party.
  4. The renewed specter of terrorism, in the form of the Christmas bombing attempt, which takes place under Democratic watch.
  5. An electorate in which Democrats outnumber Republican 3-1, but in which a plurality of voters are registered as independents.
  6. A Senate seat held for almost 50 years by the “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy.

With these fundamentals as the backdrop, how did the two candidates try to frame the election?  For Brown, it was easy: capitalize on growing public concern over the sluggish economy and high unemployment, and the failure of “big government” run by Democrats to hold down health care costs or to prevent would-be bombers from getting on airplanes.  Promise “change” in the form of less taxes, and a smaller but more competent government.  Critically, Brown said he would oppose the national health care legislation but he did not push for a repeal of the Massachusetts health care law.  Instead, he argued for more federalism – allowing each state to shape its own health care legislation. Equally important, Brown kept his distance from the “tea party” movement so as not to allow Coakley to paint him as a social conservative.  In the final PPP poll, 37% said Brown was a moderate, while 58% described him as conservative. (Sixty-four percent said Coakley was a “liberal”.)  His favorability/unfavorability ratio stayed high throughout the campaign.  Tactically, Brown stayed on the attack by making this election about the party in power.

Coakley found herself in a more difficult position.  By surrounding herself with members of the party establishment, and getting endorsements from Kennedy family members, she allowed Brown to paint her as in effect the incumbent candidate.  For an angry electorate seeking change, she was the obvious target.  And, as is well documented, she compounded the problem by several public gaffes that fed into the perception that she felt the Senate seat was, in effect, a Democratic seat that shouldn’t require her to dirty her hands by actually working for it.  In the end, voter anger mushroomed during the closing days, and Coakley’s last minute efforts to go on the attack were not enough to overcome the desire to throw  the incumbent out.

That’s my explanation.  Is there any data to support it?  Some, but not as much as I’d like. The Rasmussen Election Day poll had Brown winning independents by a whopping 73%-25%, and taking the vote of more than 1 of every 5 Democrats. Fifty-six percent (56%) of voters in the state say health care was the most important factor in their voting decision. But, this includes those who were and those who were against the national health care legislation; voters were in fact evenly divided on whether to support the congressional health reform effort, with 47% favoring it while 51% oppose it. Twenty-five percent (25%) of Massachusetts voters said the economy was most important issue.

The PPP poll released just days before the election showed that 48% opposed the national health care plan, but 40% supported it.  Unfortunately PPP did not ask about the economy.

Other polls that do show crosstabs and asked about the economy, however, make it clear that this was a vote that largely, if not exclusively, turned on that issue. For example, in the December Globe poll that had Coakley up 15%, 36% of voters cited jobs/taxes and the economy as the most important issue, while 31% said health reform. Interestingly, both Coakley and Brown supporters cited economic issues as more important than health care. A second poll released a few days earlier had 42% of voters, but 47% of Brown voters, citing job/economy/taxes as the most important issue, while 41% cited health care (but only 35% of Brown supporters cited health care.).  In the Suffolk Poll released just before the election, 44% said the most important issue was jobs/the economy (another 3% spending/the budget) and 38% health care.  Among Brown likely voters, 42% said the economy (and another 8% taxes, spending or the budget) and only 34% health care.  For Coakley voters, it was 46-42 in favor of jobs and the economy as the most important issue. Interestingly, 51% in the Suffolk poll looked favorably on the Massachusetts health care legislation.

Nor do I think opinions toward Obama played a huge role in this race.  Although some have argued that the results are a repudiation of his presidency, in fact those polled seem about evenly divided in their opinion of him.  The PPP  poll gave Obama a 44/43 approve/disapprove ratio.  A second poll taken slightly earlier had it  47%-42% in Obama’s favor.

Brown supporters not surprisingly, were also more likely to think having an all-Democratic delegation to Congress was a problem – with 82% citing this as a concern in one poll.

In short, this was a referendum on the Democrats’ handling of the economy, more than on Obama or health care, although those were secondary concerns.  And that has implications, I think, for the midterm.  To anticipate my next post, the clearest message coming out of Massachusetts is that voters are angry about the failure by the Democratically-controlled government to stem the loss of jobs, and they are willing to vote incumbents out in order to change direction.  After a year in power, it’s no longer politically feasible for Obama or Democrats to blame this economy on Bush and the Republicans – a tactic Coakley tried to use in the closing days of the Senate race.   I’ll turn to the midterms in my next post, but as a tease let me note that I can see four Senate races in which Democrats are vulnerable in 2010.  With Lieberman not a solid Democratic vote, that means we may have, in effect, a split Senate coming January, 2011.

There is one last, little noted, but vitally important issue coming out of the Senate race:  Brown is now in the Senate, representing the 41st Republican vote.  Where  is he likely to stand, ideologically speaking?  In fact, as I’ll discuss in a later post, there is evidence to suggest he may be among the most liberal Republicans.  In short, Brown may move ahead of Snowe and Collins and Nelson and become the most pivotal vote upon which the future of health care depends.  To put it another way, Brown’s views may dictate the details of health care reform.

Where did that Obama mandate go? The times, they are a changing… again.

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