So what happened?
Nobody knows. Everyone has an opinion. Here's mine.
It was (mostly) about Coakley and a notably awful campaign, both strategically and in execution. Had this been a regular election, with the Democratic machine geared up on behalf of legislators, Congress members, some statewide races and maybe a President, the kind of complacency demonstrated by the Coakley campaign wouldn't have been as critical. This time, Martha Coakley was the whole show, and she didn't show for much of the performance. When she did show, she missed cues, blew lines and dissed the audience. Not too suprising, then, that much of the formidable Democratic ground machine in the state sat much of the campaign out.
Special elections are, well, special. Compressed schedules and reduced electorates are among the defining characteristics that make them so. When the whole affair, from primary to general, takes place between Thanksgiving and MLK Day, and election day comes hard on the heels of a three day weekend
Tom Jensen Public Policy Polling claims that the result was "…a repudiation of Barack Obama" based largely on his firm finding that Obama's approval rating was only 44% among ",,.the electorate for today's contest," (actualy PPP's model of the electorate) a notable drop from Obama's result in '08. One problem with that analysis is that the electorate yesterday was, predictably, much smaller and composed much differently from the election of '08. A common feature of special elections is an elevated Republican turnout. It's a matter of demography. Republicans skew older, richer and whiter than Democrats, and older, richer, whiter folks vote in greater numbers than younger, poorer and, um, more colorful folks. That's true in high turnout elections, too, but the effect is amplified when over a half a million voters go missing.
Looking at the actual results, you could say that Brown got all of the McCain votes and Coakley could only gin up 60% of the Obama votes. I'm sure there were a few folks who, having voted for a Democratic President, Member of Congress, Governor, etc., etc. just 14 months ago have now decided that the Republicans have the right idea. Very few. No more, I'd imagine, than the number who stayed home because they thought that at then end of the day, the D was a lock. No more, either, than the number who stayed home simply because the Coakley campaign just never got around to their porch to ask for their vote. As Tip O'Neill would often remind young pols, people like to be asked.
The notion that this was a repudiation of Obama, or of liberal governance in general, is also given lie by PPP's finding that "Among voters who thought that Scott Brown was either a liberal or a moderate, he won 79-18. Among voters who thought that he was a conservative Coakley won 63-32." This looks to me like another mark against the Coakley campaign, whose critique of Brown came too little, too late and not too competently.
Neither, it appears, was the election a repudiation of federal health care legislation. While health care isn't the kind of pressing issue in Massachusetts, which has it's own universal coverage program, that it is elsewhere, Think Progress reports that "Forty-six (46%) of voters said their vote was mainly to show support for health care reform rather than to show opposition to it (35%)." Given the overall conservative bent of the special election voters, that's about as close to a ringing endorsement for passing health care reform as you could hope for.
Nate Silver looked at the 31 point swing between the '08 outcome and yesterday's and estimated that it could be distributed between the national political environment, the Coakley campaign and "special circumstances" including a predicatably low turnout, compressed calendar, etc., splitting it 13, 14 and 4 points, respectively. I think he dramatically overstates the national influence and gives far too little credit to those special circumstances. He probably gives Coakley incompetence the short shrift, too. In fact, one of the main errors of the Coakley campaign was to under-rate those special circumstances and to over-rate their candidate's appeal at the top of the truncated ballot. I'd put the split closer to 15 points lost because of Coakley, 15 because of the circumstances of the special election (though the Coakley campaign's failure to recognize those circumstances may make that more like a 20-10 split) and maybe one logged against the national political mood.
Finally, while it seems that all of the criticism I've seen of the Coakley campaign is well justified, there's also too little credit given to Brown, who is a personable guy who ran an aggressive shoe leather (or truck tire, if you will) campaign. While Coakley was apparently spending vacation days highlighting favorite passages from the "You can't lose" memo someone must have slipped her, Brown apparently never received, certainly never read, its "You can't win" counterpart. Coakley didn't just lose - she got beat.
So my final take? A bad candidate ran an awful campaign and got beat by a personally, if not ideologically, appealing opponent who worked like he planned to win. There are certainly lessons to be learned, but many of them aren't directly transferable to a regular general election and while there are going to be significant legislative repercussions over the next couple of years as a result, there are few if any broad or long term political implications.
That's what I think.
But no one knows.