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Scott Brown’s Massachusetts win fueled by independent voters

In 2008, most independent voters went for Obama. But Scott Brown's US Senate victory in Massachusetts shows that, even in a liberal state, independents won't necessarily stick with him.

By Tracey D. SamuelsonCorrespondent / January 20, 2010

US Senator-elect Scott Brown (R) takes a photo of himself and a supporter in Boston Tuesday evening. Pre-election polling showed independent voters heavily favoring Brown.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP



If President Obama woke up Wednesday morning reeling from the outcome of the Senate race in Massachusetts and re-evaluating his agenda, voters in Massachusetts – especially the 2.1 million not enrolled in any party – got exactly what they wanted.

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In a stunning political upset Tuesday, state Sen. Scott Brown (R), little known before the race, defeated the state’s Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) to replace Sen. Edward Kennedy in the US Senate.

But while Mr. Brown’s margin of victory was a modest 5 points (52 percent to 47 percent), the message to Mr. Obama and Democrats was clear: independents don’t feel bound to the president just because they voted him into office.

Just more than a year ago, Obama won 57 percent of the independent vote in Massachusetts and 52 percent nationally, according to exit polling. Democrats across the country were euphoric and political analysts predicted a long, slow recovery for the Republican Party.

But that was then.

Though there was no exit polling for this race and the exact number of independents who voted for Brown is still unknown, polling prior to election day showed independents heavily favoring the Republican. Sixty-five percent of independents reported they were planning to cast a ballot for Brown, according to a poll by Suffolk University. Independent voters also played an important role in electing Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia last fall.

Independents are volatile voters

Independents’ lack of a deep psychological attachment to one party or another makes them a naturally “volatile” electorate, explains Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. They vote based on their perception of the times, rather than loyalty to a party or candidate.