Why Martha Coakley's loss wasn't about health care -- and what Barney Frank can do about it

In the rush of numbers coming in from the polls last night, one important number slipped under the radar -- and we mis-read it as much as anyone. But the Rasmussen poll numbers are actually quite clear on this. Health care was a factor in the Scott Brown-Martha Coakley race, but not in the way that commentators on both sides of the aisle are characterizing it. 

According to Rasmussen, a clear majority -- 56 percent -- of Massachusetts voters said health care was the most important issue in the election.

Here's the kicker: Martha Coakley won those voters by a margin of 53 to 46 percent. 

The only other significant issue in the campaign, according to Rasmussen? One in four voters said the economy was the top issue in the election -- and Brown won those voters by an equally small margin, 52 to 47 percent. 

(UPDATE: newly-released poll numbers, conducted by a firm run by Coakley's lead pollster, confirm that health-care wasn't the wedge issue it's being out to be. Even among independents, who essentially decided the election by going 3-1 for Brown, split only 4-3 on health care reform.)

That isn't to say that the prospect of having Brown as the "41st Senator" didn't contribute to Coakley's downfall -- certainly it helped raise millions in national financing for the race. But those numbers paint a more complex picture of the forces at work here in Massachusetts -- a state that is often misunderstood even by people who campaign in it. That much was evident in the whiny memo (leaked before the results were even in) from a Coakley operative who attempted to link her swan-dive in the polls with dissatisfaction about the Senate health-care vote:

"Coakley's lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas . . . . Polling showed significant concerns with the actions of Senator Nelson to hold out for a better deal. Senator Nelson's actions specifically hurt Coakley who was forced to backtrack on her opposition to the abortion restriction amendment." 

Still, Coakley won a clear majority of the single-issue health-care voters. And perhaps more importantly than its usefulness in assigning blame, those numbers should embolden what remains of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to buck up and pass the damn health care bill, with or without the newly-minted Senator from Wrentham.

The signs, however, are not good. Even Barney Frank -- that would be the same Barney Frank who bravely stood up to the Tea Party crazies during the Town Hall Meeting craze -- appears to be jumping off the bandwagon. Last night, Frank issued an alarming statement which has, at its base, the mistaken assumption that the Massachusetts race was a proxy war for health care: "Our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened."

He elaborates:

"I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results. If Martha Coakley had won, I believe we could have worked out a reasonable compromise between the House and Senate health care bills. But since Scott Brown has won and the Republicans now have 41 votes in the senate, that approach is no longer appropriate."

Make no mistake: without the likes of Barney Frank on board, the health care bill is d-e-d dead. There is still hope -- although no one in the House is even remotely excited about it -- of going the reconciliation route. And the only way that's likely to happen is if the people who voted for Martha yesterday turn around and start calling their Congressmen

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