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What health care meant in the Massachusetts Senate election

Scott Brown and Martha Coakley

By now we’re sure you’ve heard that Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley Tuesday in a special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.  It’s a major blow for the health care reform bill- Republicans now have enough votes to filibuster and block passage of the final version.  Democrats still have a number of options for passing health care reform, which we’ll talk about in our next post.  But first…

How did the Democratic candidate lose by five percentage points in a state that Obama won by 26 points just over a year ago?  Is health care reform to blame?  What happened in Massachusetts?

Coakley’s Campaign
The one point on which there seems to be universal agreement is that Coakley was not a good candidate.  The Christian Science Monitor expains:

Coakley was running as a Democrat in a state routinely ranked as one of the most Democratic in the US. So perhaps she could be forgiven for thinking that the race was decided in the primary. But voters were angry that she seemed to act that way. She was repeatedly accused of complacency and dogged by persistent rumors that she took a week off from campaigning around Christmas – a charge her camp denies.

And then there were the gaffes:

On top of all that, there’s some evidence that Coakley, who was from western Massachusetts, got little support from the Democratic party on the eastern side of the state.  For example, Boston mayor Thomas Menino never endorsed her publicly, and there were reports that the party never called on supporters in eastern Massachusetts to volunteer for the election.  The numbers seem to support that somewhat- Democratic strongholds like Boston and Lawrence in eastern Massachusetts had a lower percentage of voters turn out compared to the average turnout for the rest of the state.

National Referendum on health care?

First, we should point out that there were no exit polls asking people why they voted the way they did.  We did see one poll done after the election, and the results are interesting.

A full 95 percent said the economy was important or very important when it came to deciding their vote, indicating that health care was probably not their top concern.  That’s not too surprising, but here’s what is–

37% of the people who voted for Obama and then voted for Brown said that Democrats were not being “hard enough” in challenging Republican policies from the Bush years.

On the issue of health care, the results get even weirder.  Among Obama voters who went for Brown this election:

48% oppose the health care bill.  Again, no surprise until you look at the reason why:

  • 37% of those Obama-Brown voters who oppose the health reform bill say that it’s because it doesn’t go far enough
  • Only 23% said it went too far, and the rest aren’t sure

Massachusetts election graph

Which brings up another point about this election: Yes, Scott Brown promised to help Republicans block passage of the health care bill in the Senate. But in 2006 he also voted for Massachusetts’ own health care reform, and said during the campaign that he would not support repealing it.

Massachusetts’ health reform is nearly identical to what Obama and the Democrats are proposing: tougher rules on insurance companies, health exchanges, and subsidies for people who can’t afford insurance on their own.   If anything it’s more progressive- it has better subsidies for people with low incomes and more extensive coverage than either the House or the Senate bill.

We’re not sure what to make of all this, but it’s hard to come to the conclusion that this election is a rejection of health care reform.

Still, not only Republicans, but Democrats are pushing that very idea.  And it’s not just conservative leaning democratic Senators from swing states, who have always been nervous about the plan.  Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a liberal from NYC who helped lead the fight for the public option, had this to say on MSNBC Tuesday night, before the votes were even counted:

I think we may need to first take a step back and say we get the message.  We know that some way that we’re going here is not resonating.  When you have two out of three independent voters in Massachusetts say that one of the reasons they’re trending towards Brown is that they don’t like health care, that’s a sign we should say, ‘Look, we get the message.’

Again, what message is that?

  • Republicans are claiming that the election is a total rejection of the Democrats’ health care plan.
  • Moderate Democrats are claiming that the election shows that Congress needs to take a more, well… moderate approach.
  • Liberal democrats say that voters rejected health care reform because it doesn’t go far enough.  The poll actually supports that, but remember that this is Massachusetts, which is usually more liberal than the rest of the country.

All of this leaves Obama and the Democrats in a bind on health care reform.  We’ll look at their options in our next post.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • John Nagle January 23, 2010, 3:57 pm

    Best reporting/analysis that I have seen yet, although I have been too depressed to read much about it.

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