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Massachusetts Senate Race: Pro-Democrat and Pro-Brown

Brian Conley and Rachael Cobb

Forget latte-loving, granola-eating Volvo-driving Democrats. Enter the pro-Obama, pro-Democratic agenda voters who voted for Scott Brown.

Who were the pivotal voters in the Massachusetts special election to fill Senator Edward Kennedy's seat? Oddly, the answer may be Obama-supporting, Democratic voters who voted for Brown. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll indicated that 4% of Brown voters voted for him to "express support for Obama." Five percent said their vote was to "express support for the Democratic agenda in Washington." Had these voters either protested by voting for a third-party candidate, a write-in, or stayed home, Coakley would have won.

Although the Post's poll did not indicate party identification among these voters, we know from other survey evidence that an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for Brown (91%) a large majority of Democrats voted for Coakley (78%), and Independents split 64%-29% for Brown. Based on this evidence and other polling results we can assume that a mix of Democrats and Independents formed the pivotal pro-Brown/Obama bloc. Additional evidence suggest that Brown's victory was helped by the support of many voters, a percentage of whom were Democrats who actually support health care reform. They voted for Brown, it appears, in order to protest what they view as the either the slow pace or limited scope of the Democrat's health care initiatives.

What explains the logic of voting against the candidate who most aligns with your beliefs and values? Strong Democrats would call this voting behavior cognitive dissonance. Political scientists call it cognitive Madisonionism - the desire for policy moderation, a desire that is particularly animated during mid-term elections. Were these voters calling for moderation? We think not.


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The take away message for the Democratic leadership in Congress: If you don't push harder to reform health care, to regulate the banks and curb excessive compensation on Wall Street, than we will support candidates who we know from the start oppose our interests. If this is so, then a new, more powerful Democratic spoiler has emerged in American politics, one that skips the third-party option, and votes directly for the Republicans.

The voter frustration that compelled liberal Democrats to support Scott Brown is real, and easy to understand. Maybe their strategy will work. But it is unlikely, given that it ignores the institutional challenges of enacting legislation in Congress. The Senate is an anti-majoritarian institution by design; the requirement of supermajorities through the filibuster amplifies this challenge. The Democrats are up against not only the uniform nature of Republican opposition to Obama's reform initiatives, but against challenges from within.

The Democrats did not have 60 seats in the Senate prior to the Brown win. They had fifty-eight, and depended on the votes of Independent Joseph Lieberman and Socialist Bernie Sanders to ward off the threat of a filibuster. Lieberman, as we know, has already exercised the power implicit to his position to kill the public option. Now that Brown has promised to express his independence by falling in as the forty-first Republican in opposition to the current health care reform effort, enough to sustain a filibuster, there is very little the Democrats can do to salvage health care reform. Remember, many of the compromises and much of the delay on the part of Democratic leaders that has so frustrated liberals came from Obama's efforts to preempt the business interests that successfully defeated Clinton's health care reform efforts in the 1990s and from Harry Reid's futile attempts to reach out to Republicans. Again, one has to wonder about the message: ignore Republicans or else we will vote for them.


Brian Conley and Rachael Cobb are Asst. Professors of Government at Suffolk University in Boston.

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