Massachusetts voters rank economy, jobs and spending as important as health care

Jon Ward Contributor
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Scott Brown pledged to stop President Obama’s health-care bill, and that’s why he looks poised to win a stunning victory in the Massachusetts special election Tuesday. If he wins, though, it will not be simply because Massachusetts hates the Obama health-care reforms.

Opposition to the Democrats’ health-care bill, mostly from those who see it as an expansion of government, is part of the mix that is propelling Brown. But there are two other big national factors, leaving aside the fact that Massachusetts Democrats have been beset by corruption and that Democrat Martha Coakley has been a weak candidate.

First, most independents are concerned about spending at the state and federal level, and its effect on the economy and jobs. They view health care through that prism.

“When 90 percent of people are saying the recession is not over, you know that’s one of the subtexts,” said David Paleologos, director of the political research center at Suffolk University in Boston.

Second, Brown gained ground by arguing that because the state already has near-universal coverage, Massachusetts taxpayers don’t need to pay more for the rest of the country to get it too.

“Scott Brown has repeatedly been saying, ‘Why do we need to pay for this? We already have our plan and now we’re going to pay for everyone else to be covered,’” Paleologos said.

If Coakley loses, the White House will argue, to both the nation and wavering House Democrats, that it is not a referendum on health care. But the Public Policy Polling center was already speculating Monday that a Brown win would put immediate pressure on Democrats in conservative districts in states such as North Carolina.

There are enough complicating factors in Massachusetts to allow the White House to make a plausible argument against a health-care referendum. Whether it will make any difference is questionable.

Recent polling is mixed on whether a majority of people in Massachusetts favor or oppose Obama’s health-care plan. Polls from Public Policy Polling and Suffolk University in the last few days showed opposition to the Obama plan, by margins of 48 to 40 percent and 51 to 36 percent. But a Rasmussen poll last Tuesday showed a slight 52 to 36 percent edge for those in favor.

What is not debatable is that government spending and the economy are at the forefront of people’s minds.

The Suffolk poll showed 54 to 36 percent support for the Massachusetts health-care plan. But 62 percent of those same people said the state cannot afford its health-care system. The poll also showed that 90 percent said the recession is not over in Massachusetts.

“Opposition to the various things that health-care reform represents includes expansion of government in spending, but it also includes fear about what’s going to happen to my personal health situation,” said Charles Franklin, co-founder of Pollster.com, in an interview.

Franklin said that polling information showed a large enthusiasm gap between those in Massachusetts who opposed Obama’s health-care reforms, and those who supported them.

“It has never been the big positive motivator for Democratic supporters that the party seems to think it is,” Franklin said. “Conversely, it becomes a very powerful negative issue for Republicans and folks opposed to government expansion into bigger involvement in health care.”

One of the most remarkable dynamics of the Massachusetts race is that Brown’s lead over Coakley has grown seemingly in proportion to the amount of involvement by national Democrats from Washington. Polls showed Coakley leading Brown in most polls, though Brown was closing, when the Democratic National Committee sent money and operatives up to Boston a week ago.

From Monday to Wednesday of last week, Democrats began pouring more than $2 million into the state on TV ads attacking Brown.

When that strategy failed, the White House announced Friday that Obama himself would come to stump for Coakley. He did so Sunday. Polls Monday showed that Brown’s popularity was continuing to spike, while Coakley’s numbers were falling downward.

“There’s nothing totally certain, but all of the indicators are leaning strongly in Brown’s favor,” said Paleologos, who released survey results from three “bellwether counties” which each showed Brown up by an average of 15 points.

Democrats on Capitol Hill and inside the White House scrambled to come up with contingency plans on Monday.

“Trying to sort it out right now,” e-mailed one Senate leadership aide late on Monday afternoon.

In California, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to put a good face on events, calling the Tuesday special election “a very exciting prospect,” in an interview posted by the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I have confidence about tomorrow because I’m a grassroots organizer,” she said. “It doesn’t’ matter what the poll says. It matters who votes.”

As for the health-care bill, Pelosi was defiant.

“Let’s remove all doubt that we will have health care one way or another,” she said.

The lack of specifics coming from the White House or congressional Democrats indicated that the party in power was having trouble as they surveyed a very limited range of options, all of them bad.