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.
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.
“This is not a Democrat/Republican thing. This is an incumbent/newcomer thing,” says Ralph Polis, a registered independent. “The people defied the machine and the money.… It can happen and it happened right here in Massachusetts.”
But their abandonment of Obama was also based on more than just the issues, and it will have broad implications for Obama the Democratic party.
“The swing of independent voters to Republican candidates has changed the whole equation,” says Todd Domke, a GOP strategist based in Massachusetts. “Independents are not just angry because they disagree with Obama’s policies, but because they felt betrayed by him and leaders of Congress breaking their promises of transparency.”
Like Obama, Brown said he'd change the status quo
Part of Obama’s appeal for independents, says Mr. Domke, was his promise to change the status quo in Washington, something Brown has promised as well.
In fact, while their styles are markedly different, Brown and Obama may have appealed to independent voters for similar reasons – their direct approach and assertion that Washington is not functioning as it should.
To get independents back, Domke thinks Obama should acknowledge his errors – admit he went “too left, too partisan, and that he did go along with Washington.”
But there might be another option: fix the economy.
“Democrats have gotten a year, usually they’d get two, but voters are already rendering a judgment,” says Professor Stewart. “They’re saying, ‘Things haven’t gotten better. Make things better.’ ”
With the 2010 midterm elections just nine months away, improving the economy must become Obama’s No. 1 priority.
“You can’t mask the economy with commercials or slogans,” says Jeffrey Barry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “This election was all about the economy. And it’s the recession that Barack Obama now owns.”
The popular message of former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign still stands, says Mr. Barry: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
• Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.
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