Now that the counting’s over in Massachusetts and the crying’s begun for Democrats, with a conservative Republican poised to take over Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat and health care reform still unfinished, the press is doing its best to sort out what it all means. And in the first round of election post-mortems, many outlets turned to the same idea: voters in the Bay State had “sent a message.”
Here, for example, is the opening of the “news analysis” story in The Boston Globe:
Angry Massachusetts voters sent Washington a ringing message yesterday: Enough.
Voter anxiety and resentment, building for months in a troubled economy, exploded like a match on dry kindling in the final days of the special election for US Senate. In arguably the most liberal state in the nation, a Republican - and a conservative one at that - won and will crash the Bay State’s all-Democratic delegation with a mandate to kill the health care overhaul pending in Congress.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of Scott Brown’s victory because so much was at stake. From the agenda of President Obama and the legacy of the late Edward M. Kennedy to a referendum on the Democratic monopolies of power on Capitol and Beacon hills, voters in a lopsidedly Democratic state flooded the polls on a dreary winter day to turn conventional wisdom on its head.
In other words: angry voters don’t like direction of change in D.C., take action to stop it. That’s clear enough, and seems to be echoed in the headline of the analysis piece on the front page of the Globe’s corporate parent, The New York Times: “A Year Later, Voters Send a Different Message.”
But probe that Times story, and a different picture starts to emerge, one that suggests maybe the message isn’t quite so clear:
Ms. Coakley lost in no small part because of what many Democrats viewed as a stumbling campaign against a sharp and focused opponent. There is a good argument that the outcome was as much an anti-incumbent wave during tough economic times as it was an anti-Democratic wave. And there is still time before the midterm elections for the economy to rebound in a way that benefits Democratic candidates, and for Mr. Obama to make a case that the health care legislation, if he finds a way to sign it into law, will benefit the hard-pressed middle class.
Still, Ms. Coakley’s defeat could easily be seen as evidence that the Obama White House is out of step with much of the American public — pushing through a health care plan at a time when many voters are primarily concerned about unemployment.
So, the result “could be seen”—by whom?—as a repudiation of D.C. Democrats. On the other hand, “there is a good argument”—advanced by whom?—that it wasn’t that at all. The message is starting to get fuzzy.
It isn’t much cleared up by the effort from the Associated Press. The AP story runs the interpretations that Democrats and Republicans are trying to push, then moves into analysis mode:
American voters rejected Republican control in the 2006 congressional elections and the 2008 presidential election. Democrats widely assumed that a top priority, and a winning political issue, was to make health insurance more accessible and competitive.
But now, just 14 months later, voters are snarling at the Democrats they put in charge, leaving them to wonder how to expand services without invoking public wrath.
John Triolo, a Massachusetts independent who voted for Obama in 2008 and for Brown on Tuesday, exemplified the confusing message.
“I voted for Obama because I wanted change,” said Triolo, 38, a sales manager from Fitchburg. “I wanted change, I thought he’d bring it to us, but I just don’t like the direction that he’s heading.”
Everyone should have health coverage, Triolo said, “but I think we should take the time to look at it, but not ram it down our throat.”
So voters are sending a message with their electoral choices, after all. Unfortunately, it’s a “confusing” one. Make of that what you will.
There’s a reason why interpretive articles that make strong claims for the “message” of this outcome devolve into over-written cliché, and why pieces that attempt to grapple more honestly with the material descend to insider baseball or ambiguous mush. It’s because elections—especially one-off special elections—are ill-suited for that purpose. An election is the distillation of many, many factors—partisan affiliation, candidate and campaign quality, economic circumstances, political trends, etc.—into one choice: this person, or that person? Trying reason back from a result to its causes, and to divine a message from that stew, can be a fun exercise in informed speculation. But it’s rarely more than that.