A Table of Data Is Worth A Thousand Pundits

I want to revisit the subject of my previous post – why Brown won – but in more succinct fashion.  As I noted, the pundits (at least most of them that I was able to read) agree what this election was about: a referendum on health care.  Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker opines:  “Although Democrats flail against the obvious, the real message of Brown’s ascendancy signifies opposition to current health-care reform. His surge has been an echo of 1994, when a backlash to Hillary Clinton’s attempt to overhaul health care sparked a Republican takeover of Congress.”  John Judis agrees: “In fact, the percent of 2008 Obama voters who were backing Brown almost perfectly matched the percentage who were dissatisfied with Obama’s health care plan, which Brown himself singled out for criticism in his campaign. According to the Rasmussen exit sample, 52% of Brown voters rated health care as their top issue — a clear indication that they were viewing the election in national terms.” E.J Dionne also points to health care, although he comes to a different conclusion regarding how Obama should respond: “Brown’s victory is also a rebuke to the Senate, which acted as though it had unlimited time to pass health-care legislation and ignored how foolish its listless ways appear to normal human beings. Like a bottle of milk kept out of the refrigerator too long, the health bill went sour for voters who felt they never heard an adequate explanation of what was in it.”

However the preelection polling data (at least those surveys which reported results regarding what issue voters said was the most important) tells a slightly different story.  The polling data indicates that the economy – jobs, taxes and government spending – was the most important issue, trumping even health care. In the table below I show data from every poll this year that asked Massachusetts voters to identify the most important issue in the Senate race.  (Note that some pollsters, such as PPP, didn’t even bother asking about anything except health care).  Here’s what they found:

Poll and date Economy/jobs/taxes/budget/spending is the most important issue Health care is the most important issue % Brown supporters saying economy is most important/health care most important %Coakley saying economy is most important/health care most important Predicted final outcome of the race
Suffolk University 1.14.10 48% 38% 50%/34% 46%/42% Brown 50%

Coakley 45%

Cross  1.14.10 42%% 31% 47%/41% 36%/50% Brown 50.8%

Coakley 41.29%

Boston Globe


36% 31% 32%/34% 38%/30% Coakley 53% Brown 36%

Note that the more accurate the poll in terms of forecasting the final result, the greater the number of likely voters citing economic issues as most important. Note as well that although Brown campaigned against the national health care legislation, he did not advocate repealing the Massachusetts’ version of universal health care in place since 2006.  Instead, Brown suggested that each state be allowed to develop their own health care plan. Clearly, although health care was a significant concern, the dominant issue among most voters, but particularly Brown’s supporters, was economics – jobs, taxes and government spending.  Tuesday’s election was not, contrary to what many pundits are suggesting, a referendum on health care.  To be fair, not all pundits missed the message that the economy drove Tuesday’s results. (Surprisingly, the NY Times seemed to get it right here.)  Nor am I suggesting that health care played no part.  But make no mistake – the repudiation of Martha Coakley was primarily driven by voter anger over the economy.

Having said that, the results of Tuesday’s Senate special election will have huge implications for the health care debate in Congress.  Several of you suggested that the best strategy for Democrats now is to push hard to get the Senate bill through the House before Brown is seated.  In my view, that is a politically naïve perspective.  I don’t believe House Democrats facing reelection in the fall are going to support the Senate bill in its current form – not after Tuesday. In my next post I’ll explain why.

P.S.  Marty sends along this video link showing Hitler’s reaction to Brown’s victory.


  1. From the limited, unscientific sample of Massachusetts voters that I’ve talked to it seems that although healthcare itself was not the main factor as a standalone issue, it played a dominant role in concern about the economy and government spending. The Brown supporters I talked to didn’t mention death panels or the like but cited healthcare as the chief example of runaway government spending and a failure of the Democrats to address jobs. They saw it as a costly distraction. This seems to be consistent with MA fundamentals. The state has universal healthcare, so getting coverage at the national level would have less of an impact on the state than the cost of the program. People of both parties decried the filibuster and the deals awarding medicare funding to various states needed to overcome it. The sentiment seemed to be either pass it or don’t but don’t screw us over with insider deals.

    Turnout seems to have been a big determinant of the vote, and I wonder how that complements the discussion of most important issues. Bearing in mind that it’s impossible to assess individual behavior from aggregate data, it seems from the Franklin graphs that Scott Brown won all of McCain’s supporters (and even a few more, at a 105% total) while Coakley failed to mobilize Obama’s supporters (polling only 56% of Obama’s vote by town). It seems likely that few people changed their views between 2008 and now. Those who voted Republican in 2008 voted Republican now, picking up only a few extra supporters but benefiting from the fact that many former Obama voters simply didn’t vote. I haven’t seen anything but anecdotal evidence on levels of turnout. How did it compare to 2008. Did GOTV efforts have the largest impact in determining who won?

    Also, why exclude the Rasmussen survey in your table?

  2. Jesse – Good points all. I’ll try to get to most of them in my next post. Regarding Rasmussen, however, I did reference their data on my initial post on this topic. The reason I didn’t include them in the chart is because they don’t reveal their crosstabs, so I can’t be sure how Coakley and Brown voters broke down on this question. Nor did they reveal whether they asked about any other issues, or even their question wording at all. Without this transparency, I can’t come to any reasonable conclusion regarding the accuracy or significance of their finding regarding what voters felt about health care.

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