If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It Part II

In spite of incorrect explanations like those of New York Times political columnist Matt Bai that the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate resulted from the actions of a fickle electorate dominated by political independents, the loss by Democrats of a long-held Senate seat is really a clear example of the old adage, "If you don't use it, you lose it." That is the lesson that Democrats should draw from last week's special election. The admittedly shocking event in Massachusetts notwithstanding, during the past decade the Democratic Party has assembled a new, and potentially majority, voter coalition. If the Democrats have the awareness and courage to use that coalition in New England and elsewhere across the United States they could dominate American politics and policy making for decades to come.

According to Bai, the American electorate, represented most recently by Massachusetts voters, seems to suffer from political ADD, flitting between "the latest offer" or "the newest best deal" in a society that is constantly "hitting the reset button." But, the victory of Scott Brown was not a matter of a fickle electorate alternating between the two parties in search of something new and different, or even a change in voting preference by Massachusetts independents. Rather, the outcome of last week's special election in Massachusetts stemmed primarily from reduced voter turnout among the state's Democrats. Bai and the Washington punditry might have known this had they even briefly reviewed the survey and election data that is freely and easily available on the Internet.

Brown CoakleyA posting by Charles Franklin on Pollster.com demonstrated the likelihood that reduced turnout among Massachusetts Democrats led to the victory of Republican Scott Brown and the defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley. Franklin indicates that Brown matched or exceeded John McCain's 2008 vote total in every jurisdiction while Coakley fell below Barack Obama's vote everywhere in the state. Overall, Brown's 1.17 million votes were 106% greater than McCain's 1.1 million in 2008. By contrast, Coakley's 1.06 million votes were only 56% of Obama's nearly 1.9 million votes in 2008. Franklin summarizes what happened this way: "... this doesn't mean that Brown got exactly McCain's voters since lots of individual switching could add up to these totals. But in the aggregate, Massachusetts looks exactly like it did in 2008 on the Republican side. On the Democratic side, a whole lot fewer voters."

Franklin is properly cautious about over-interpreting the aggregate election data. But a post-election poll (pdf) conducted by Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health confirms Franklin's aggregate level conclusions. The Post survey makes clear that the Massachusetts outcome was not the result of a wholesale flow of voters between the parties. The large majority of voters preferred the Senate candidate of the party for which they had voted in the 2008 presidential election. Virtually all Coakley voters (96%) chose Barack Obama and nearly seven in ten Brown supporters (68%) voted for John McCain in 2008.

But, the most unique and interesting aspect of the Post survey is that it interviewed a subsample of Senate race non-voters. While the non-voters fell between the Brown and Coakley voters in their attitudes, they were consistently much closer to the latter than the former on all items. Most tellingly, a large majority of non-voters who had voted in the 2008 presidential election (70%) voted for Barack Obama. Their attitudes toward the president have not declined significantly since his election. A large majority of non-voters (69%) approves of the job Barack Obama is doing as president. A majority (54%) also said they were either enthusiastic or satisfied with the policies of the Obama administration. By contrast, a majority of non-voters (56%) were dissatisfied or angry with the policies offered by congressional Republicans.

A clear majority of non-voters prefer a government that does more to solve problems rather than believing government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals (58% vs. 37%). This preference for activist government is reflected in the attitudes of non-voters about the proposed health care reforms developed by Congress and the Obama administration: a plurality of them supported rather than opposed that legislation (49% vs. 39%). Solid majorities of non-voters believed that the health care reform proposals would either leave themselves and their families, Massachusetts, and the country as a whole either better off or, at least, in the same condition as they are now. Only about one in five non-voters felt that the proposed health care reform program would hurt any of those groups.

The Post survey did not release demographic information and there were no media-sponsored exit polls last week in Massachusetts. Consequently, there is no foolproof empirical way to determine the exact demographic and political composition of those who voted in the special Senate election. But, a survey of likely voters (pdf) taken by Public Policy Polling (PPP) in the last weekend before the election provides a reasonable surrogate.

Of all pre-election surveys, the PPP poll most closely forecast the election outcome. It clearly indicated that the Massachusetts electorate last week contained significantly fewer young voters, minorities, Democratic identifiers and self-perceived liberals than it did in November 2008. All of these were groups that underpinned the president's 62% majority in Massachusetts.

In 2008, according to CNN's exit poll, 17% of the electorate was 18-29 years old and an additional 26% were 30-44. In the 2010 special election those numbers dropped to 8% and 20% respectively. In 2008, more than one in five Massachusetts voters (21%) were minority; last week only 13% were. In the 2008 presidential election, Democrats comprised a plurality of voters (43%). In 2010, just 39% of the electorate identified as Democrats. Finally, in 2008 about one in three voters (32%) was a self-perceived liberal; in 2010 less than a quarter (23%) were.

In reporting on its poll, PPP realized the difficulty that these numbers presented to Democratic candidate Martha Coakley: "Brown has a small advantage right now but special elections are volatile and Martha Coakley is still in this. She just needs to get more Democrats out to the polls." She didn't, and Scott Brown is now a Senator-elect.

What happened in Massachusetts has clear implications for Democrats across the United States. Martha Coakley and her out-of-touch strategists lost touch with what Barack Obama and his creative campaign did to rally a new winning coalition in 2008 and, as a result, lost an election in a state Democrats believed they could not possibly lose. Coakley lost not because the groups in that coalition turned against Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, but because turnout among those groups fell precipitously. If you don't use it, you lose it.