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A referendum on Obama & health care? The polls are as divided as the voters.

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Washington-watchers continue sort through the rubble of data from the Massachusetts special election.  As I posted yesterday, some consensus has emerged that Coakley underperformed consistently, within her own base as well as with independents.  And the consensus on cable news suggested opposition to both Obama and health care reform drove the election.  But the data this week was far from consistent on this latter point.  Before we use the recent election to inform the health care debate and 2010 campaign strategy, it's worth examining the data more closely.

Some polls show "sending a message" or "stopping" Obama not the most powerful driver

Democratic polling firm Hart Research conducted an election day survey that showed stopping Obama to not be front-and-center.   They found fewer than half (42%) of voters felt "sending a message" about Obama going too far was either the single most or a very important quality they looked for in a Senator, far behind strengthening the economy and "controlling health care costs and covering the uninsured."  Further, as the memo points out, "Even Brown voters were more are more concerned about a lack of change (50%) than about trying to make too many changes too quickly (43%)."  Further, by a margin of 2-to-1, voters said they were voting "for the best candidate" instead of "to send a message to Washington." 

Many polls show voters turning out to support health care

This election night poll by Coakley's pollster Celinda Lake asked specifically about whether one's vote was to show support for health care or to show opposition.  A plurality (46%) said it was to show support.  The Hart survey also said those who knew Brown's position on health care were just as likely to vote against him because of it (39%) as vote for him (41%).

And the Hart poll, this Rasmussen poll, and the Lake poll, all showed that voters who named health care as their top concern were more likely to support Coakley.  And all three of these polls showed voters for whom the economy was most salient gave Brown the advantage. 

One Republican poll, however, disagrees on both points

Republican pollster Fabrizio also conducted an election night survey, and as noted here, differed from his colleagues as to what drove the vote.  His poll shows Brown voters responding in an open-end that health care was the single biggest factor in their vote.  For Coakley voters, health care came in after a more vague "I'm a Democrat."   He also finds a plurality (46%) of Brown voters saying their vote was to "send a message to Washington," with about as many (43%) claiming it was "for Brown."  But interestingly, more Democratic and independent Brown voters claim their vote was to send a message (50% and 52%, respectively), while a majority of Republicans (56%) were voting "for Brown."

A progressive-sponsored poll looked at different questions altogether

A consortium of progressive groups (PCCC, MoveOn, and Democracy for America) also commissioned an election night survey, conducted by Research 2000.  Their survey had a unique methodology; they surveyed Obama voters who stayed home, and Obama voters who voted for Brown.  They found a plurality of Obama/Brown voters feel Democrats are not "fighting hard enough to challenge the Republican policies of the Bush years."  And like many of the surveys above, they found these Obama/Brown voters, across all parties, to say the economy was more important to their vote than health care.

And while the poll shows a plurality of Obama/Brown voters oppose health care reform (48% oppose), more of those who oppose think it doesn't go far enough (18% of all Obama/Brown voters) than think it goes too far (11% of all Obama/Brown voters).  However, even more health care opponents aren't sure whether it goes too far or not far enough (20% of all Obama/Brown voters).

So what are the lessons from Tuesday?

Here are some takeaways from the post-election polling this week.

Exit polls make it easier to form a consensus about what happened.  For all the perennial complaints about the shortcomings of exit polls, the fact is they do provide us with an unbiased source of data to help distill meaning from election results.  In their absence, we are left with competing claims from surveys conducted by mostly partisan pollsters.  In this case, the claim that opposition to health care defeated Coakley, while widely adopted, is not a consistent finding in public post-election polling.

Protecting health care was important to Coakley voters.  Whether it was the most or second-most important issue to Coakley voters, it's clear across surveys that it was indeed important.  So attitudes toward health care motivated both Coakley and Brown voters.  It's a data point that might have helped Howard Dean in this debate with Chris Matthews this week.

Many things motivated Brown voters. Brown voters were motivated by a myriad of factors.  While pollsters disagree as to how much health care or "sending a message" drove Brown voters, there is consensus that he was simply more popular than Coakley.  The Hart and Rasmussen surveys both found Brown to be substantially more popular than Coakley.  Brown also consistently had the advantage over Coakley among voters concerned about the economy.

Confusion about health care begets opposition.  The Research 2000 survey shows those opposed to health care are not quite sure why they are opposed.  

Question wording on health care continues to evolve.  The Fabrizio survey used open-ended questions to determine what the most important factors to the vote.  This may produce different responses than the closed-ended questions in the Hart, Rasmussen, Lake, and Research 2000 polls.  And maybe Washington shorthands like "going too far" and "not going far enough" have different meanings to voters still sorting through health care reform's specifics.

UPDATE: This newly released Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll, conducted after the election is consistent with some of the findings discussed above.  First, it shows opposition to Obama was not the biggest motivator for Brown voters.  Over half (52%) said "Obama was not a factor" compared to 43% who said their vote was "to express opposition to Obama."  Brown voters are also evenly divided between whether Brown should work with Democrats on health care reform (48%) or stop changes to health care from happening (50%).  Also worth noting, a full 37% of Brown voters said they are dissatisfied or angry about the "policies offered by the Republicans in Congress."  hardly a national mandate for Republican takeover. 

This new poll also shows health care to be salient to both Coakley and Brown voters.  In fact, it appears that health care is the singularly most dominant issue with Coakley voters (compared to the economy, "the way Washington is working," candidate personal qualities, government handling of banks, and others), while Brown voters are a bit more divided amongst their top-tier of issues.