Many Democrats will scratch their heads this morning, wondering how it’s possible that Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the USA, with Democratic voters vastly outnumbering Republicans, just elected a right wing Republican with many of the same extreme values as George W. Bush. The key to understanding what happened: Turnout.
Most news stories on the election are merely reporting that turnout for the election was high, but that’s a blunt assessment. The important question is not the general number of voters, but who turned out to vote, and who didn’t. Indications are that while heavily-Democratic areas had an okay turnout, voters from heavily-Republican areas had a remarkable surge in turnout.
That’s how a Republican can win in a heavily Democratic state: Rile up the Republicans, while the Democrats stay home in disgust. If Republican (and right-leaning independent) turnout is high, while Democratic turnout is significantly lower, a majority-Democratic state turns into a majority-Republican state.
Why would Democrats stay home, in such a close election, with a U.S. Senate seat on the line? Perhaps the Democratic voters who were needed to participate in the general election didn’t like their own party’s candidate.
Democrats who turn out to vote in a party primary like the one that got Martha Coakley the nomination are not the same as Democratic voters in general. Party insiders have much more sway in primary elections. Because of that, a Democratic Party primary can elect a candidate who doesn’t represent most Democrats very well.
That may have been Coakley’s problem. During and after the primary campaign, Coakley received strong criticism from Democrats as much as from Republicans. The reason: Coakley’s positions often stood in opposition to those of the progressive Democratic base.
A case in point: The Patriot Act. Martha Coakley not only supports the Patriot Act, she has been quoted depicting people who have concerns about the Big Brother spying law as a bunch of liberal whiners. It’s not surprising that many Massachusetts Democrats didn’t feel that it was worth their while to turn out to vote for a candidate like that, thinking to themselves, “With a Democrat like Coakley, who needs Republicans?”
Didn’t Barack Obama, their own President, visit to whip up their enthusiasm? Don’t Democrats just love their President? Yes, Obama did come to Massachusetts. No, in spite of what Republicans love to say about Democratic voters, Barack Obama is not their messiah. As 2009 progressed, Democratic voters became less and less fond or appreciative of Obama because, like Coakley, Obama has betrayed the progressive ideas that are important to most Democrats.
Health care reform, the issue that the Democrats tried to make front-and-center, is a great example of the problems many Democratic voters have with President Obama and their own party’s leadership. In the election of 2008, there were great promises of a strong progressive health care reform package, but when Obama got into office, he didn’t follow through.
Obama started the process by infuriating the Democratic progressive base, refusing to allow any consideration at all for a single-payer health care system. This cast the most passionate Democrats as outsiders, and allowed the right wing Blue Dog Democrats to take control of the process, setting into motion a chain of events that led to the transformation of health care reform into an entitlement program for insurance companies, without any public option, with nasty poison pills like an financial ban on abortion mixed in.
Most Democratic voters hate what the health care reform legislation in Congress has become. So what did Democratic Party leaders do with the special election in Massachusetts? They made this their primary argument: You have to vote for Martha Coakley, or the health care reform legislation won’t pass.
It’s not at all surprising that Democratic turnout in Massachusetts was lower than Republican and independent turnout. Democratic voters spent the last decade pushing hard against the Republicans’ right wing agenda. Now that they’ve discovered that they have to push almost as hard against their own party’s leadership, many would much rather take a nap than go tromping through the snow to vote.