Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Massachusetts and Personality Politics

"In the television age, people do not so much agree or disagree with politicians as like or dislike them." - Neil Postman

The results of yesterday's election in Massachusetts offer a stunning confirmation of this statement. A Rasmussen poll from just yesterday shows Obama's approval-disapproval ratio in Massachusetts at 53/37. This on the same day that the state voted in a Republican Senator. In a state that has 65% of it's voters registered as Democrats. In a state where one of the most liberal Senators sat for 30 years. Following two election cycles where Republicans were resoundingly rejected, and a Democratic president took office, winning the presidential election by a wide margin. This is the climate under which a huge underdog Republican won a seat as Massachusetts state Senator.

How does one explain the continued relatively high approval rating of Obama, at least in this state, while Brown's victory represents a pretty strong rebuke of Obama's policies and performance? By noting the disconnect between personality and policy in the minds of voters.

There are always innumerable factors to weigh when analyzing results like this, but the following is my best guess as to what is happening in Massachusetts, and macrocosmically in the country as a whole. As noted above Obama still has a fairly solid approval-disapproval ratio in Massachusetts. That is; people still tend to have a favorable view of Obama the person, the speaker, the figure, despite apparently not being all that enthralled with his either his performance or his policies. People are still out of work, and many more are going out of work, and they see the Democrats, with super-majorities in both houses, accomplishing literally nothing at all on that front. And the one front where they are at least attempting something (healthcare reform), they are failing miserably. If voters in Massachusetts were so inexorably committed to the policy of universal healthcare, or to the Democratic economic platform and job-creating plan, then they should vote for a Democrat in a race that's as high profile and pivotal as this race was. The fact that they didn't means that there has been a change of attitude toward Obama and the Democrat's policies and performance. Though not a huge change on the issue of Obama himself, as a person. Voters can, and do, separate the two things.

Some might contend that Coakley just ran a bad campaign and Brown just ran a good one, and that the results aren't a referendum on Obama's policies or on the Democratic party as a whole. It's difficult to make that case given the political make-up of Massachusetts. Plenty of huge underdogs have run brilliant campaigns against lackadaisical incumbent opponents/parties before, and still lost. In fact this is precisely what happens in most cases, especially in a state where the registered voters are heavily one party or the other. It most often doesn't matter much how well, or how poorly you campaign in a state like Massachusetts, the Democrat should almost always win regardless. And they do. Which means there has to be other factors at play with this upset. And as I stated above it seems to be a surging conservatism, and a resounding rejection of Obama's policies, and the Democratic party as a whole that were the factors.

Not to mention the recent negative stigma carried by the title 'Republican'. It doesn't matter how poor a candidate Coakley was. She couldn't be bad enough for an extremely liberal state to elect a Republican, a pariah Republican, over her and take Ted Kennedy's seat in the senate for no good reason. But there was a reason. People got their 'change' and realized change for change's own sake isn't an inherently good thing. Sometimes change means change for the worse.

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