Voters Don’t Always Think Linearly: The Coakley/Brown Edition

And, as always, people have to like this crap. I recently finished Ryan Grim’s We’ve Got People–which is excellent–and I came across this bad memory of Martha Coakley’s Massachusetts failed senate candidacy. To set the stage, after Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy died, there was a special election, with Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley running against Scott Brown (who would go on to win). Let’s turn the background over to Grim (pp. 159-160; boldface mine):

Assured of victory in the coming January general election, she tried that luck and departed for a two-week vacation in the Caribbean. Yet Capuano returned to Washington shaken by what he’d seen on the campaign trail. He was invited to brief a private gathering of House Democrats in the basement of the Capitol.

He leaned into a standing microphone, looked around the room at his colleagues, and, according to one of the lawmakers present, delivered a two-word speech: “You’re screwed.

As the gathered House Democrats gradually realized they had heard the extent of his speech, the silence was punctuated only by soft, nervous laughter. Later, Capuano elaborated on the theme to me. Everywhere he went in Massachusetts, he said, he met people who were absolutely livid at the anemic approach to job creation in the wake of the crisis. That rage, he warned, was going to be turned against Democrats at the polls if they didn’t deliver.

Coakley, still on the beach, saw it too late. In January 2010, she was dealt an upset that was stunning to everyone but Capuano. The health care reform effort appeared buried amid the rubble.

With Coakley’s loss (and who the fuck takes a two-week vacation right before their election?), Democrats had only 59 votes in the Senate, and, since they were unwilling to end the filibuster (which meant that any Democratic legislation was dead as sixty votes were required to bring the bill to the floor), the public option, to the extent it was actually an… option, was dead.

Back to Grim:

The night of the special election, three progressive groups–Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and MoveOn–fielded a poll of a thousand people who voted for Obama in 2008 but either switched to support Brown for Senate or decided not to vote. More than 80 percent of both groups favored a public option.

Nobody listened to Capuano’s assessment that the sagging economy was driving public rage, and conventional wisdom had formed that the push for health care was too aggressive, and the vote represented a backlash. But even that was flimsy, according to the survey.

A plurality of people who switched from Obama to Brown–48 percent–or didn’t vote–43 percent–said that they opposed the Senate health care bill, the poll financed by the progressive groups found. But it’s not enough to know simply that they were against it. Among those Brown voters, 23 percent thought it went “too far”–but 36 percent thought it didn’t go far enough. Another 41 percent said they weren’t sure why they opposed it.

That means that roughly one-third of voters who wanted stronger health care reform than Congress was delivering switched from Obama to Brown. Given that Brown won by just five points, it could have made the difference. The drawn-out process, the compromises with industry , the gradually weakening bill, fed a cynicism that Washington wasn’t working for regular people, a suspicion strengthened by the still battered economy.

It may seem counterintuitive to express anger at a weak bill by voting for somebody who only wants to kill it, but our electoral system only gives voters two choices, and voting can often be more emotive than it is rational.

The decision for some Obama voters was to not vote at all. Among those who didn’t vote and said they opposed health care, a full 53 percent said they objected to the Senate bill because it didn’t go far enough; 39 percent weren’t sure and only 8 percent thought it went too far. So one-fifth of Obama voters who stayed home were upset that the bill wasn’t strong enough. Had Coakley been able to turn out just a fraction of them, she’d have won.

To a certain extent, this was ‘Massachusetts-specific’: people already had experienced the ACA in the form of Romneycare–and, as some asshole with a blog told you, people still were getting fucked by healthcare. But good policy can tilt the balance towards victory, and bad policy can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Any similarities to our current political situation or recent political events are, of course, coincidental.

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2 Responses to Voters Don’t Always Think Linearly: The Coakley/Brown Edition

  1. James Dukelow says:

    You don’t mention Coakley’s role in the ugly Amirault Day Care prosecution, which probably affected a few votes.
    Jim Dukelow

  2. David J. Littleboy says:

    What James said! Coakley was widely disliked. And MA, despite being seen as liberal, has a rich supply of well-off (well above median income), rural, land-owning, white voters (i.e. Trump voters). For example, Tewksbury, MA, was dense of Trump signs in people’s yards before the 2016 election. Toss in the rich Boston bankers and corporate types, and you have a state that regularly elects Republican governors. A good democratic candidate running a sensible, careful, and thoughtful campaign can seem to be sliding to easy victory, but relax just one of those constraints and disaster awaits. Toss in the incredible stupidity* of the Boston Globe (which, like the NYT, is more interested in horse races than policy), and you have real trouble.

    *: In an editorial before the last Governor’s election, they listed up the policy issues they thought were important. And endorsed the Republican, who was on the other side of every one of those issues.

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