It's not a scalpel. It's a 5-pound sledge hammer. You either pick it up or you leave it on the bench, and if you pick it up you either hit one candidate with it or you hit the other one. That's the range of things you can express with a vote. (Actually, there's one other thing you can express; I'll get to that in a moment.)
Votes are not designed for--and are incapable of--"sending messages" other than the single, obvious, binary one. They're not designed to communicate any of these states of mind:
- I never liked Obama and I never liked health care reform.
- I like health care reform and think Obama's doing it just right.
- I used to like Obama but I think he's made a mess of health care reform.
- I like Obama but I don't like the reform bill the Senate produced.
- I'm okay with Obama, but I think that Martha Coakley's a hack.
- I'm not impressed with Scott Brown, but I'm tired of being told that I have to vote for Coakley because "this is Ted Kennedy's seat."
- A Senate candidate who once appeared naked in a magazine? Cool!
- A Senate candidate who once appeared naked in a magazine? Disgraceful!
- And so on, almost ad infinitum.
Huh-uh. The only options here are vote/no vote, and then vote for A/vote for B. The ballot contains no essay section where you explain why you voted like you voted, or stayed home. Individual voters may be thinking some of those things as they cast their ballots, but voting is such a crude way of expressing it that anyone who insists there's a simple interpretation for a vote, or even a pattern of votes, especially in a one-of-a-kind race like this one, is probably full of self-serving crap. Chris Matthews, I'm looking at you.
But there is that one exception that I promised, above. There is one other thing you can do with that metaphorical hammer: You can chuck it into the works, hope it will crash the machinery, and as a result make the people running the machinery notice that you're there.
If there was one common element among voters across the political spectrum in Massachusetts this week, it was dissatisfaction--with their candidate, with the other candidate, with their party, with Congress, with the President, with the current state of health care reform, with the American form of government, whatever. (In that regard, they were the American electorate, writ small.)
If you put a gun to my head and made me enter the tea leaf-reading sweepstakes, I'd probably say that a lot of what went on this week in Massachusetts was hammer-chucking.
Voting is not an act of subtlety.