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Live by Change, Die by Change

Wednesday, January 20, 2010, 21:16 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Barack Obama got nominated and then elected President in 2008 by promising something different. Beyond pointing out that he wasn’t George W. Bush, he was short on the specifics, except when he thought the specifics would be easy to get done (e.g. closing the Guantánamo Bay prison, pulling the troops out of Iraq). By remaining vague on the rest of it (e.g. reform health care without saying how), he offered himself to voters as a blank slate on which they could write whatever they wanted to see. He got them to equate “different” with “better.”

It was a brilliant strategy for becoming President, but a lousy one for being President, especially for someone with Obama’s slim credentials. The new President hasn’t come through on some of the so-called slam-dunks (closing Gitmo is a bigger challenge than he anticipated, Iraq a more fragile situation, and I have no idea why he refuses to touch Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell). What big initiatives he has managed to get passed, like economic stimulus, have been disasters. And he has so far failed in his signature issue, medical insurance legislation, even though his partisan compatriots have held a large majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. It apparently does not occur to him that if he has such trouble getting his own party to support an enormous program like universal medical insurance, it probably isn’t very popular with Average Americans™ either—something public opinion polls continue to confirm.

So what do people who wanted Change™ for the better do when the change turns out to be worse? They make more changes, and the sooner the better.

The statewide margin of victory for Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley in yesterday’s special Senatorial election was 109,425 votes, or 4.9% of ballots cast. A five percent spread is considered a comfortable win, and in Massachusetts it’s practically a landslide. But even that doesn’t tell the complete story about the breadth and depth of Brown’s support.

Click to view largerIn this graphic from the Boston Globe (click the map to view larger), we see that Coakley’s victories (blue) came predominantly in cities and towns in the immediate greater Boston area and in the western part of the state, where she grew up and began her career. Brown (red) won communities pretty much everywhere else, including the Cape Cod town of Hyannis, site of the Kennedy estate. Notice the darker shades of blue and red; those suggest wider margins of victory. With a few exceptions, there isn’t as much darker blue as there is darker red.

Click to view largerBut even the margin of victory isn’t as relevant until you consider the size of the municipalities each candidate won. This graphic uses blue and red dots to signify the size (in votes, not percentage points) of the win in each city and town. Coakley won big in Boston and the very liberal adjacent communities, but not so much elsewhere. By contrast, there are plenty of medium and larger sized red dots for Brown. In other words, not only did Brown win more municipalities, he won more of them by a large enough margin to easily overcome Coakley’s Boston dominance.

What is most upsetting today for Democratic strategists is that many communities who went heavily for Obama in the last Presidential election went solidly for Brown yesterday. While it would be easy to pin Coakley’s thumping on her own failures as a candidate, and there were several, the fact remains that Brown campaigned heavily on the specific issues of stopping Obama’s medical insurance ambitions (“I’ll be the 41st vote against Obama’s health care bill”) and opposing the Democrats’ past and planned massive stimulus and bailout bills. I can promise you that no one went to the polls saying, “Passing universal health care is a top priority issue for me, but Martha Coakley wouldn’t shake voters’ hands in the cold at Fenway, so I’m voting for Brown.” What happened instead was that people who thought universal health care was a good idea have either changed their minds in general or realize what a boondoggle the legislation has become and don’t trust the Democrats to put forth anything decent.

The voters have rejected unspecified Change™ voted instead for instead for change in very specific areas.

It’s been fun to watch some of the talking heads and regular folks (D-MA) who have tried to explain Brown’s surge and victory by pointing out his Cosmopolitan photo spread. (For those who haven’t seen it, he did indeed pose fully nude, but with his arm draped in a strategic way so as to hide anything that can’t legally be displayed in public in most U.S. cities.) I also haven’t heard anyone saying, “I really think President Obama is on track with his economic plan and want him to go farther, but I’m voting for Brown because he has great pecs!” Besides, no one knew about the Cosmo shoot, which was done when Brown was in law school in the early ’80s, until Democrats started talking about it a couple weeks ago, evidently believing it would hurt him among more conservative voters. Mark that down as one of many OOPS! decisions by the tone-deaf Coakley campaign and its supporters.

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