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.
Exit polls are the media and political world’s attempt to deal with this problem, and much has been made the absence of the leading exit poll consortium in this case, which has led some media outlets to turn to other sources for data. But while exit polls may have some uses, like helping to estimate the demographics of the electorate that turns out on a given day, reports about voters’ explanations for their choices should always be taken with a grain of salt.
That’s because, as research has shown, voters are not reliable reporters of their own mental processes. While journalists can offer speculation about why an electoral result occurred, voters may offer rationalizations. (For example, a voter who says he supported Brown because he opposes health care reform may have decided to support Brown because he liked his truck, observed that Brown opposed health care, and then, when stopped by a pollster upon leaving the ballot box and given a list of potential explanations, selected health care.)
The point is not that voters in Massachusetts actually, down deep, support health care reform, or approve of Obama’s performance; or that the outlook for Democrats in the mid-terms is not grim (it is, though we knew that already). The point is that the press can’t with any confidence discern a message from this outcome, and attempts to do so both misuse journalistic resources and suggest to readers that we know more than we do.
But while this election may not have a clear message, that doesn’t mean it won’t have consequences—starting, of course, with some real uncertainty about the fate of health care reform. We don’t need press speculation on that point, but we do need good reporting on the choices being made by key political actors, and the fall-out they will have. Hopefully, the press will get the “message” talk out of its system shortly, and focus on the political story that matters.