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Massachusetts Message: Not satisfied with promised 'change'

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
Candace Brooks, left, voted for Obama but doesn't think he's changed the tone in Washington.
Candace Brooks, left, voted for Obama but doesn't think he's changed the tone in Washington.
  • Massachusetts Democrats talk about their vote in Senate election
  • Even those who voted for Obama say they haven't seen change
  • Democrat who voted for Republican Scott Brown thinks she did right thing
  • Bigger shift occurred among independents, who broke heavily for Brown

On CNN's "State of the Union," CNN host and chief national correspondent John King goes outside the Beltway to report on the issues affecting communities across the country.

Boston, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Candace Brooks is a Democrat who voted for the losing candidate Tuesday. Yet she, too, is part of the Massachusetts Message.

"I literally stood over the ballot, and I was, like, almost Scott Brown," Brooks said over breakfast the morning after Republican Brown's stunning upset in the Massachusetts Senate race. "I was almost there."

Almost there -- almost casting a Republican vote -- a little more than a year after her enthusiasm for Barack Obama convinced her to switch from "unenrolled," or independent, to a registered Democrat.

Al Perry, like Brooks, is a registered Democrat and voted for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. But his morning-after mood also magnified the message:

"Well, it's pretty clear to me that people are disappointed in the change that we were all expecting to see with a Democratic president, a Democratic-controlled Congress, and what we see is just more fighting and nothing getting done, seemingly."

Consider Victoria Vigna the exclamation point: like Brooks and Perry, a registered Democrat. But unlike them, she voted for the winner, anguishing until the end but finally swayed by a bad economy and the tone of the Democratic campaign.

"I think that he is really what the people need, and I am a Democrat," Vigna said during a break from her work waiting tables at Mike's City Diner in Boston's blue-collar South End. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, I voted for a Republican.' But honestly, I think I chose the right person for the job."

The Massachusetts Message is many things but first and foremost the theme sounded by Perry.

Video: How did Brown win?

Fourteen months after Obama swept Massachusetts by 26 points and won the presidency in an Electoral College landslide, the economic anxiety and political disaffection that put such a strong wind at Obama's back are just as strong, if not stronger.

As Perry put it: "The economy is a mess for most people, and we watch what's happening on Wall Street ... and Obama has gone along with that. It's now his issue as much as it is Bush's issue."

To be sure, Coakley, the state attorney general, ran an uninspired and flat-footed campaign while Brown was disciplined and agile. Also, there is no doubt the state political environment helped Brown; the Democratic governor is unpopular, and the Democratic-controlled legislature has had more than its share of recent corruption issues.

But there were without a doubt national issues at play. Although Obama's image never appeared in a Brown campaign ad, his agenda was center stage, as was his partnership with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Given the Obama margin of victory just 14 months ago, it was stunning that the GOP candidate had no hesitation in criticizing the president's views on health care, the economy and the treatment of terrorism suspects.

Brown's come-from-behind win was powered by independents, who are now a majority of the Massachusetts electorate. Just 14 months ago, independents in the state broke for Obama over John McCain, according to exit polls, by a 57 percent to 40 percent margin.

Brown credited his win to the state's independent majority, and the shifting sentiment of independents is one major worry for Obama and his fellow Democrats. But perhaps even more stunning were the words and views of Massachusetts Democrats who, not long ago, were strong Obama supporters.

Brooks was quick to urge some patience. "A year isn't enough to say whether the guy's going to be able to change something," the self-employed market researcher said.

But she was quick to answer "no" when asked whether Obama had kept his promise to change the tone and working environment of Washington. ''Something's got to give. I just don't know when."

Vigna's take tracked with what we have heard time and again during our cross-country travels in recent weeks. Coming from a working-class Democrat -- and one who had just voted Republican in the Senate race -- it underscored the shaky ground facing the president and his party early in this midterm election year.

"I think people are more anxious and agitated" than they were in the 2008 campaign, Vigna said. "There's a lot of people who aren't working. ... In the last six months, it's been very hard to make money, because people just aren't spending like they were."

Perry, again echoing what we have heard often elsewhere, said his take on Washington is that those calling the shots are disconnected from the daily challenges and economic anxiety so easy to find nowadays, in Massachusetts and across America.

"Maybe they need to evaluate what is important to people," Perry said. "Obama, maybe Congress, need to step back and say, 'What do the American people really want here, and are we serving them, or are we simply here to gain power for our parties?' "

That disaffection continues to drive voters away from the major political parties. A majority of voters in Massachusetts are now "unenrolled," and Perry is poised to join the state and national trend, another warning sign for Democrats.

"I used to be a Republican; now, I'm a Democrat," he said. "Now, I am going to become an independent. And I can understand why Tea Party people are so upset, because nobody's being served by either party in Washington."

For now, independent-turned-Democrat Brooks will remain a Democrat. But her mood after losing says a lot about the early "intensity gap" of this young election year, a major part of the Massachusetts Message.

"The people ended up voting against Martha Coakley," she said. "The system, in a way, righted itself. I'm not upset, even though I voted for her. I'm not upset that she lost. I think that we need change, to use an overused statement, and you know, maybe he has something to bring to the table."