Did the ‘Cornhusker Kickback’ Sink Coakley?

Figuring out why voters made the choice they did is a tricky task

In the ongoing effort to explain Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts—a win that has not only thrown health care reform into disarray, but now seems to be shaping Barack Obama’s broader political strategy—a new contender has emerged: it was all about the “Cornhusker kickback.”

That phrase refers to the unseemly bit of sausage-making in which Democratic leaders persuaded Ben Nelson, the conservative Democrat from Nebraska, to support the health care bill in exchange for some special favors for his home state. According to a David Herszenhorn “Prescriptions” piece in Tuesday’s New York Times:

More than anything else, a paragraph on Page 2,129 of the Senate health care bill may be the primary reason Mr. Obama is now fighting for the survival of his top domestic priority.

Widely derided as the “Cornhusker kickback,” it called for the federal government to pay the full cost of a planned Medicaid expansion for Nebraska while other states would eventually pay a small part of the expense…

The public simply could not swallow the idea of Nebraska’s getting a free ride at the expense of 49 other states. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, singled out the provision on Thursday as a reason rank-and-file House Democrats would not just approve the Senate bill and send it to Mr. Obama.

Herszenhorn is reporting from D.C., which may limit his ability to know first-hand what the public could or couldn’t swallow. But the claim that Bay State voters had the Cornhusker kickback in mind was also made Sunday by Time’s Karen Tumulty, who was in Massachusetts to cover the election. Riffing off The Washington Post’s write-up of a post-election survey indicating that Brown voters had “concerns about the process,” Tumulty wrote:

The deal now known as the “Cornhusker Kickback” may have been one of the biggest blunders in modern political history. Normally, you’d be surprised if people in Massachusetts even know who the Senator from Nebraska is. But the number of people I talked to who brought up Ben Nelson’s name, unprompted, was striking. I’m also told, by some who were doing phonebanking, that they got an earful about it over and over.

This looks pretty solid: good, old-fashioned political reporting that’s based on talking to voters and asking what’s on their minds. The problem, as other commentators have noted over the past few days, is that this sort of shoe-leather reporting may presume an outdated model of voter decision-making.

Much political journalism assumes that voters approach a campaign with a set of concerns they want to see addressed. Over the course of a campaign, they follow the news so they can weigh the candidates’ platforms and their performance on the stump against those concerns. And at the end of the campaign, if you stop a voter on the street, or in a barbershop, and ask why he made the choice he did, he’ll be able to tell you.

But we have reasons to be skeptical that this is actually how voters get information and make decisions. People’s views on political issues are influenced by the messages they absorb from elite opinion-makers, who are increasingly polarized and have an increasingly national reach. And voters’ ability to identify the factors that shaped their choices is limited.

With these background concepts in mind, here’s a possible alternate explanation for Tumulty’s experience: the people she was encountering were, for one reason or another, Brown voters (and likely health care opponents). And, over the course of the campaign, they had “learned” the “right” reasons to vote for Brown, who had made the “backroom deal[] in Nebraska” part of his message. Kevin Drum, who offers a different reading of the Post poll, speculates that “the people who brought it up were almost certainly primarily conservatives who listen to conservative media and have been getting an earful of these outrages on an hourly basis for weeks…These are mostly the same people who have been opposed to [health care reform] from the start.” And Jon Bernstein, making the same point, writes that “What [Tumulty’s post] misses is that if it wasn’t Nelson’s deal that the talk radio yakkers were gabbing about, it would have been the deal with Louisiana, or if not that then perhaps it would be death panels, or something else.”

One way to evaluate these competing explanations is to ask: If this is true, what else must be true? If the “Cornhusker Kickback” did in fact repel voters, we’d expect to see support for health care plummet after mid-December, when the deal was struck. But in fact, as John Sides notes, opposition to reform, which had been rising steadily throughout 2009, actually softened in national polls at about that time. (The more relevant information for interpreting the election would be Massachusetts-specific, but I’m not aware of comparable data there.) The Nebraska deal certainly gave opponents of reform more reasons to oppose it. It may also have energized them, which could in turn have had electoral consequences. And, in fairness, it’s possible that it changed minds. But the data proving that point, despite Tumulty’s effort to link her reporting experience to the Post poll, is in short supply.

There are two frustrations here. While there is reason to be skeptical about the Cornhusker claim, we’re not left with much in its stead. The alternative explanation doesn’t say why Brown drew as many votes in Massachusetts as John McCain did, while the Democratic vote collapsed. (A tentative attempt to do so is here.)

The bigger problem, though, is that we’re not left with much guidance to give journalists. Tumulty, after all, did exactly what we’re always exhorting the press to do: she got out of the Beltway bubble and talked to voters on the ground. But if the language voters use to talk about their choices is lifted from the Beltway conversation, even as local factors continue to play a role in determining elections, the value of that approach is less clear.

While we search for a way to crack this nut, the best response for journalists is not to throw their hands up. We do need sharp reporters like Tumulty out there talking to voters, seeing which messages get picked up, and searching for those nuggets that don’t come from a list of talking points. At the same time, though, the press should be skeptical of easy explanations—and humble about its ability to figure out why things happen in the world of politics.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.