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1, 2, 3 Many Tea Parties?

Midterm Storm Brewing: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson and Jie Chen Reveal Real Story of Massachusetts Election Upset


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Passage of the health care reform bill has convinced some analysts that the Massachusetts Senate election might be a fluke. In fact, polls taken after the legislation passed show Republicans widening their lead in fall congressional races. This paper takes a closer look at the Massachusetts earthquake. It reviews popular interpretations of the election, especially those highlighting the influence of the “Tea Party” movement, and examines the role political money played in the outcome. Its main contribution, though, is an analysis of voting patterns by towns. Using spatial regression techniques, it shows that unemployment and housing price declines contributed to the Republican swing, along with a proportionately heavier drop in voting turnout in poorer towns that usually provide many votes to Democratic candidates. All these factors are likely to remain important in the November congressional elections.1

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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. Jie Chen is the University Statistician at the University of Massachsuetts, Boston.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. When Scott Brown won the senate elections in Massachusetts at the beginning of this year, a lot of people speculated or hypothesized on why it happened. Number one explanation was tea partiers had flocked to Massachusetts and sent their dollars and people were fed up with big government and health-care reform, and there was some other theorizing, but now Tom Ferguson, who’s in Massachusetts, has tried to figure out from some actual data what happened and why what happened happened and what it means for the upcoming congressional elections. And now joining us is Tom Ferguson. He’s a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute in New York, and he also teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Thanks for joining us, Thom.


JAY: So what happened? Why did Scott Brown win? And what does it tell us about the coming elections?

FERGUSON: Well, I think first of all I should say I co-authored this working paper with my friend Jie Chen, who’s the university statistician—I didn’t do all the work, okay? But what we did, since there were no polls—I mean, it seems unbelievable, but in fact there were none at all, I take it, because all of the media institutions around the state were on financial life-support and they just wouldn’t front the cash, and at the time, you know, a week before, it didn’t seem all that close. What we did was to look at sort of old-fashioned election analysis, where you examine town by town the returns, and try to figure out with information about the town background. That’s not nearly as good as looking at polls of individuals, but you can glean a lot of information. Basically what we found out real fast was that, first of all, where unemployment was high in the state they were much more likely to vote Republican, and where housing prices had fallen the most they were much more likely to vote Republican. Now, there were some demographic stuff in there, too. I mean, towns—you know, maybe not too surprisingly, towns that had a high percentage of African Americans were slightly less likely to sort of go Republican, if you were. In heavily Hispanic towns, though, it’s a real shaky result. They were maybe slightly more likely to go Republican. It’s not an enormous effect. I mean, the stories are basically housing prices and unemployment as things that are driving that outcome. What that says to me is that, you know, after a year in office, basically, the Democrats, who after all control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and did so by very large majorities, you know, in historical terms, they hadn’t done nearly enough. They have effectively owned the recession now, and a big chunk of the population, you know, is clearly not impressed that Larry Summers or Tim Geithner (or for that matter any number of large bankers, big bankers) say the US is doing fine. I mean, in effect you’ve had a Wall Street recovery and Main Street languishing, unemployment’s barely budged, and they are effectively just voting against the folks in power.

JAY: Now, Thom, in your report you also found that in the same instances of high unemployment or housing crisis issues, that a lot of people just stayed home—it wasn’t that they voted for Republicans. So what was the break, in terms of how many voted Republican versus how many traditionally Democratic working-class areas simply wouldn’t didn’t vote at all?

FERGUSON: What you discover is, in the poorer towns, the ones that are less affluent, the voters turned out much less, meaning they fell a lot more from—the drop in turnout was much steeper in the poor towns than in affluent towns. And the problem for the Democrats was that most of the poor towns, no matter what you read about Reagan Democrats and stuff like that, in fact the poor towns consistently deliver heavier, proportionately heavier majorities for the Democrats. And so, yeah, a lot of folks just sat on their hands. You can put it another way. If you want to compare it to a hurricane, which—clearly that metaphor might not be appropriate, but you might end up with Hurricane Katrina here in November. If you want to compare it to a hurricane, in the eye of the hurricane the old Democratic base seems to have gone ominously quiet. You know, it’s very different from the, you know, near-millenarian exuberance in 2008.

JAY: Some of the people, from your results, they’re voting on issues of unemployment and housing. Why vote Republican when the message is, you know, no more stimulus money? They’re supposedly against bigger government, which has a lot to do with subsidies and some kind of various kinds of welfare safety net issues. Or is it just straightforward protest vote?

FERGUSON: I think to a considerable extent it—to me it mirrors the way electorates often vote in deep recessions, which—the rule is very simple: if you’re in, you’re out. It looks to me like a big chunk of the population got really hammered after it basically—in September 2008, when Lehman Brothers went down, and that whole gigantic drop in the stock market and the collapse of all kinds of financial markets, and they haven’t recovered from that. They also—in fact, we know for sure that, you know, the ordinary person, who clearly cannot afford to take big risks in the stock market, has largely sat out the revival of the stock market. In that sense, if you sort of step back from this, you can sort of say, gee, the whole process—the collapse of Lehman, and of course the rescues of AIG, TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program], the FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation] loans to banks—that whole package got Wall Street back on its feet, but it also transferred a tremendous amount of wealth. They all lost initially; then Wall Street comes back and makes a ton. The ordinary person in America hasn’t made that back. And, you know, my take is that’s probably very threatening to folks’ retirement, and I think it probably interacts with age. When you read interviewers with tea party people, what I see coming out of those, you know, waving some Alice in Wonderland stuff, and on the edges, as Frank Rich and others have said, I mean, there are some really nasty and sometimes violent people and that. But, you know, I don’t think that’s basically, at least not now, what the tea party folks are basically about. They’ve been wiped out, and they’re really afraid. And given the way the Obama administration did not move vigorously on unemployment, you know, the reputation of government able to solve anything has taken a big dive. And so, from their standpoint, even a program like health care is—you know, they’re afraid of the tax liability, I think.

JAY: Thom, your report explains there’s some quite contradictory information. One, of course, is that the majority of people in Massachusetts seem to like their government-run health-care plan, even though a small majority didn’t like the Obama plan, although I suppose it’s [inaudible] hard to tell how much of that’s just wrapped up with what you were saying earlier, just anger about the general economic situation. But there was another kind of anomaly of sorts, which is you point out in your report that a significant amount of money went to Brown from Wall Street.

FERGUSON: Look, a tidal wave of cash came in to Brown in the last couple of weeks of the campaign, really a lot.

JAY: So a significant amount of money goes to Brown from Wall Street, except one of the reasons people are apparently voting for Brown is ’cause they’re angry about the bailout of Wall Street.

FERGUSON: Yup. It’s a great system, isn’t it? That’s democracy in action.

JAY: So what does this say about the coming elections? ‘Cause you’ve got a large section of the American working class that’s at the core—one of the core constituencies for the Democratic Party. If this election tells us something, either it might go Republican or it might just stay home. So what could—what can the Democrats do about it?

FERGUSON: The fundamental problem was, you know, as I remember telling you back as he came into office, they’ve got to act on unemployment, and there they have just not been very aggressive. Their stimulus was too small. The Federal Reserve could care less. And so they haven’t effectively done very much about that. And on housing, their programs have just been often ridiculous. You know, they spent an entire year on these sort of stupid programs that were effectively pleading with bankers to make some concessions. They’ve just come in with a new one. And, again, you know, most of these get hung up ’cause the mortgage servicers, the folks who are actually doing the mortgage, are often the banks. They hold second mortgages, and they simply will not agree to any change in the terms on the first mortgage that they’re servicing, even though it’s not theirs, ’cause they’re going to get hammered on the second. And so, I mean, the administration has just done very little on housing. And almost everybody agrees, you know, you might get a slight economic improvement between now and the election, though nobody expects the jobless rate to drop under 9 percent. But there are not very many people confident about housing. I mean, that’s the place where even, you know, the most friendly beings to the administration are worried about a double-dip, at least in housing, if not in the economy as a whole, for sure. You can be sure that’s one reason why the National Bureau of Economic Research refused to announce that the recession was over.

JAY: So how does all this play out in November?

FERGUSON: Well, there’s one other factor you’ve got to consider, which is that Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC [Federal Election Commission], in other words the bill that effectively said, you know, corporations can use their own money and independent efforts against candidates, I have a feeling that’s going to be very important in the end [inaudible] you will see a tidal wave of cash. That’s likely, I think, on balance, to work against the Democrats yet additional. And, you know, this may have a very odd implication. You know, just imagine this—but I think it’s actually gone on and happened—the Democrats maybe could lose the Senate, though probably not. You know. But they are going to lose a lot of seats. That’s going to—and Harry Reid is probably just going to be a tryout for that TV series Lost. And so they’re going to have to have an election for Democratic leader, and, you know, right now the number two in the Senate is, I think, Dick Durbin from Illinois. Well, he’s the guy who said the banks run the Senate—or Congress, pardon me. He was actually much more technically correct than I was. He said they run the Congress. He’s got an obvious contender there, and it’s Senator Charles Schumer. Now, despite occasional populist noises, mostly around election campaigns, Schumer is the voice of Wall Street in the Democratic [inaudible] he’s usually the chairman of the Senate Democratic fundraising committees and things like that. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, as I suspect, after the Democrats take heavy losses for, frankly, not moving aggressively enough to either rein in Wall Street or fix the economy, they end by voting in Senator Schumer as majority leader? But, you know, you heard it here first: that’s what’s going to happen.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Tom.

FERGUSON: Okay. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.



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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.