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How will Democrats interpret Brown's win?

Topics: Barack Obama , Health care , Martha Coakley , Scott Brown

The question of the moment is what effect Scott Brown's victory will have on national politics.

It's important to note that his election to the Senate does relatively little to change the overall balance of power in the country. See, for instance, Joshua Tucker's helpful chart:

MA_Election

The loss of Democrats' filibuster-proof majority seems to eliminate the prospect of passing the health care bill through conference committee, but for other legislation, the shift of the pivotal voter from Ben Nelson to Olympia Snowe in the Senate is likely to have a relatively small direct effect. Nelson is currently paying a heavy political price in Nebraska for his support of the health care bill and is unlikely to take a similar risk on future legislation. (On a more technical level, Tucker also notes that the gap between Nelson and Snowe's ideal points is probably relatively small -- see, for instance, Simon Jackman's estimates [PDF].)

Similarly, we knew Democrats faced an unfavorable environment two weeks ago and that the health care reform plan was relatively unpopular in national polls. Not much has changed on either front.

What matters, however, is the collective interpretation of the election. Even though Brown's victory was an ambiguous amalgam of national and local factors, including Coakley's hapless campaign and poor economic conditions, the media is already portraying the outcome as a referendum on President Obama (though a majority of Massachusetts voters approve of his performance) and health care (even though Brown supports a very similar state-run plan in Massachusetts). Debatable as they may be, these interpretations may quickly become conventional wisdom -- indeed, many Democrats have already endorsed them.

The most relevant comparison to the current situation might be electoral mandates. The seminal political science research on the subject shows that opposition party legislators tend to deviate from their typical voting patterns in the direction of a perceived mandate for some period of time before returning to normal.

Given the Democratic tendency to panic in these types of situations, we may see a similar shift in voting patterns or a change in the party's legislative agenda. Pundits will likely claim that Democrats should yield to public opinion as expressed by Massachusetts voters. But it's not at all clear that such moves will prevent significant losses in the November midterms, nor that there is a "message" from Brown's victory as such.

Update 1/20 1:50 PM: Based on Brown's voting record as a state legislator, political scientist Boris Shor estimates that he will become the Senate filibuster pivot rather than Snowe. As I've previously argued, I think Brown moved right to motivate the GOP base in a low-turnout special election, so I'm skeptical he'll pursue such a moderate course (at least right away). But if Shor is correct and Brown is between Nelson and Snowe, it reduces the rightward shift in the filibuster pivot, meaning that Brown's win would have an even smaller effect than we might have otherwise thought.

Update 1/21 9:36 AM: See also John Sides on the need to admit what we don't know about the MA results and Greg Marx on the media's misguided attempts to distill a "message" from the election.

Update 1/22 9:44 AM: Via Matthew Yglesias, Alec MacGillis reports in the Washington Post that "Brown's victory in Mass. senate race hardly a repudiation of health reform."

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com]

 

Comments
Marcello Mastroianni:

It's certainly true that Coakley ran a poor campaign, but it's also true that the President *allowed* her to run a poor campaign. With the Dems only one vote away from a filibuster, and Coakley taking the holidays off, Obama should have been on the phone telling her to get back to work. Never mind that the polls showed a safe seat -- when the stakes are this high, you don't take chances. So it's fair to call this election a referendum on the President, and it's fair to conclude that the President has failed as the leader of the Democratic Party.

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GARY WAGNER:

This election was a referendum on congress. So far, Obama has stepped back and allowed Pelosi and Reid to call all of the shots. Since Obama and congress are one and the same, by proxy this was a referendum on Obama. That explains why he is still polling above a 50% approval in MA but the programs he has handed off to congress are all polling below 50% approval. Congress' approval is in the toilet.

If Obama doesn't throw congress under the bus, they'll take him the rest of the way down with him. Right now people would much rather see him stand up to the corrupt bribes and payoffs and procedural gimmicks than see this pork-filled bloated mess of a bill get passed. In other words, if he would do what he campaigned that he would do his popularity would go back up and people would support him again.

Reagan did this by going around congress directly to the people. If Obama is such a great communicator, he should be able to do this too - if he hasn't permanently destroyed his credibility by letting congress run things instead of him running congress.

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