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Reading tea leaves in Massachusetts

Rosemary Joyce

Fevered analysis by pundits and the general populace alike is linking the Republican victory in Massachusetts to repudiation of national health care. It may come as a surprise that there is actually some decent data on which to judge this election. And it suggests that Martha Coakley lost the election by failing to rouse much enthusiasm; Massachusetts voters for the most part did not think of this vote as a referendum on President Obama or health care legislation; but they were concerned that the public health care they enjoy would suffer if the present federal bill were to pass. Health care was just one issue for these voters, whose anxiety was aimed more at the general economic situation of the country.

A poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Kaiser Family Foundation found, among other things, that 81% of Massachusetts voters who broke for Brown feel the country is headed in the wrong direction. [This number, and all those dealing with voters, have a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.]

62% of Brown voters listed health care as an issue for them in this election. But only 36% of those voters ranked it the most important issue for them. Other issues of interest to close to half of the Brown voters included the economy and jobs, the federal deficit, and taxes. In other words: Brown voters, including the 28% who voted for Obama in the presidential election, are worried about the economy overall.

Brown voters aren’t entirely opposed to national health care reform nor do they want all attempts at reform blocked.

The same poll gives us an overview of the Massachusetts electorate’s sentiments, as summarized by the Washington Post:

About 43 percent of Massachusetts voters back the health care proposals supported by Obama and congressional Democrats, while 48 percent oppose them. The majority of those who opposed the measures backed Brown, saying the Democrats’ plan would make things worse for their families, the country and Massachusetts.

Massachusetts voters are almost evenly split on the issue of health care. Only 22% of those who voted for Brown were generally opposed to health care reform. 9% of those voting for him actually support  reform, including voters who want Brown to support the current bill.

Remember that Massachusetts already has a public health care system. As reported in the Boston Herald, Brown actually supports that system:

He vowed to block President Obama’s health-care overhaul even as he defended the 2006 state law, which he supports and which continues to have the backing of a majority of Massachusetts voters.

Indeed, according to the post-election Massachusetts poll, 68% of voters overall, including 51% of those voting for Brown, support Massachusetts’ health-insurance plan over proposed national health-care reform. The Boston Herald article provides anecdotal evidence that Massachusetts voters fear that a national health care program would endanger what they currently have:

“I think we’re paying enough for the health issue in Massachusetts without paying for the rest of the nation,” said Mary Foota, a 50-year-old cafeteria manager from Fitchburg.

There is a large gap between Brown and Coakley voters on this issue, with 65% of Brown voters thinking the current health care bill would make things worse for them, and only 38% of Coakley voters thinking the health care bill would improve their situation.

Far from being opposed to national health care reform, a whopping 75%  of those polled reportedly want their new senator to work with Democrats on health-care reform. Only 19% of Brown voters want him to work to “stop the Democratic agenda”.

What they do not like is the political process they see: 30% of Brown voters reported concerns with the process (something only 9% of Coakley voters were concerned about). Brown voters were twice as likely to be concerned about the impact of health care reform on their own personal situation (13% to 6%).

The polling data suggest that those commentators who emphasize that Martha Coakley lost the election are onto something: sentiments were weaker among her voters.

22% of Coakley voters had no strong stake in the election; this was true of only 9% of Brown voters. Even on health care, only 32% of Coakley voters ranked it their most important issue. That compares to 36% of Brown voters for whom this was the most important issue, numbers that fall within the margin of error (and so should be regarded as indistinguishable). Coakley and Brown voters were really similar when it came to how much health care motivated them.

The greatest differences in proportions of voters were on other issues: taxes (where 40% of Brown voters and only 14% of Coakley voters said this was an important issue); the federal deficit (48% vs. 19%); and above all, “the way Washington is working” (motivating 54% of Brown voters and a mere 23% of Coakley voters).

Oh, and the idea that this is a referendum on President Obama? The picture is complicated. While 43% of Brown voters mentioned opposition to Obama in general as a motivation, far more– 52%– said Obama was not a factor. 52% of those voting in the election overall (and 54% of non-voters, with a margin of error of eight percent) were either enthusiastic about Obama or at least satisfied. 61% of voters, and 69% of non-voters, approve of Obama’s performance as president.

Buried in the polling data, though, is the fact that 29% of Brown voters were “angry” at the policies of the Obama administration.  Think that’s bad? well, 43% of Coakley voters are angry about Republican policies.

Bottom line: Massachusetts is unique. The public health care system it enjoys makes its voters atypical nationally, as they have something substantial to lose in federal health care policy. But even so, health care was not the whole story.

The economy and political process were critical for those who were most engaged, and those supporting the Democratic candidate didn’t feel as strongly about the issues at stake. It seems way overblown to dismiss the high levels of approval for President Obama– even among those who rejected his endorsement of Martha Coakley– in order to characterize this as a referendum on his performance.

And maybe the angry voters Democrats should watch out for in November are those on their own side.

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