Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

Meaning of Mass. election

Were they using their ballots to attack President Barack Obama? Not according to the data.

A post-election poll from The Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard found voters approved of the way the president is handling his job by 61 percent to 37. Even Rasmussen found a clear 53 percent majority approving of the president. Just 23 percent of voters overall, and far fewer than half of Scott Brown voters, said their vote was cast in opposition to the president. None of this can be construed as a rejection of President Obama.

ADVERTISEMENT
Voters’ much-discussed “anger” was actually more likely to be directed at Republicans than at the president. Just 16 percent told pollsters they were “angry” about the administration’s polices, with nearly half again as many expressing anger at the policies put forward by Republicans in Congress.

 Perhaps Massachusetts voters exempt the president personally but intended to send a strong signal of disapproval to Democrats more broadly. Not so much. Congressional GOPers suffered from a much more negative image in Massachusetts than did their Democratic counterparts. Net favorability for Senate Democrats, while hardly strong, was still 27 points higher than for Senate Republicans.

Indeed, even as voters were telling our interviewers they supported Sen.-elect Brown by a five-point margin (which turned out to match the final margin precisely), they also said they would prefer to be voting for a “generic” Democrat rather than a “generic” Republican by an 18-point margin. (If only that had been the choice facing them ... )

Perhaps Massachusetts voters cannot shake their blue tint, maintaining affection for their party while wanting a senator to bring Democrats’ agenda to a screeching halt. Not so, according to the Kaiser poll. A mere 11 percent want Sen.-elect Brown to go to Washington to be the 41st vote to stop the Democratic agenda. So the result was not intended as a particular rebuff to Democrats or their policies.

Well, if it wasn’t the president, or his party, or the Democratic agenda, surely voters were sending a message about healthcare.

Here it is, as the movie suggests, complicated. The Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll found a narrow 43 percent-48 percent margin opposed to a content-less healthcare plan. Rasmussen found 47 percent in favor, 51 percent opposed. Our poll had very similar results, but just 31 percent of voters opposed the bill because it went “too far,” while the balance of opponents felt it did not go far enough.

Moreover, a substantial share of the opposition to healthcare resulted from concern about process rather than substance — many more voters voiced anger about wheeling and dealing than about the public option or the individual mandate.

Therefore, it should be of little surprise that in Rasmussen’s poll, those who cited healthcare as the most important issue in determining their vote actually cast their ballots for Martha Coakley (D) over Brown by a seven-point margin.

So if voters were not really rebelling against President Obama or his party, or healthcare, what deep angst were they expressing?

They dread, as we all do, joblessness and an economy that still feels mired in deep recession. They were angry about a political system that seems able to deliver for Wall Street banks but not for them; a system that produces debate, but no jobs; a system where backroom deals appear to overwhelm the public interest. They were offended by a candidate who did not appear to feel their pain and attracted to one who seemed authentic, different, in-touch — and who offered the germ of an idea about how we might beat this recession.

Voters may have reached faulty conclusions, but it is their conclusions that decide elections, not ours.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.