Here's a number to keep in mind as you watch the Massachusetts election returns tonight: 52 percent.That's the proportion of independents who voted for Obama in 2008, according to the CNN exit poll. Since 2004, independents have been trending Democratic.

No longer. In 2009, independents helped Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie win governorships in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2010, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, independents have come out strong for Republican insurgent Scott Brown.

What's changed? If you listen to Democrats, they say the economy has worsened and independents blame the incumbent party. And certainly that's true, to a point. But clearly more is also at work. Massachusetts's 8.8 percent unemployment rate, for example, is below the national average--though still at a 10-year high.

Independents not only are upset that the economy is lousy and unemployment is high. They have a problem with the way the Obama Democrats have responded to the recession--from the idea that government spending alone will promote recovery, to pushing issues ancillary to economic recovery such as climate change and health care.

Beyond the economy and the president's agenda, there are plenty of other factors going into tonight's returns. Coakley turned out to be a weak candidate. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is unpopular. Democrats are unenthusiastic. These are all symptoms of an incumbent party out of step with its electorate.

Coakley still may win. But do not doubt: the Massachusetts special election is the Democrats' perfect storm. One that may last through November 2010.

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