campaign desk

Mixed Messages in Massachusetts

Still looking for meaning in the Brown-Coakley results
January 20, 2010

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.”

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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.

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.

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