Deval on the defense
An economic downturn and a GOP resurgence
complicate the electoral geography for 2010
Four years ago, the Democratic Party reached a new apex in Massachusetts with the landslide election of Deval Patrick as governor. And the demographics seemed to portend further happy days, with Democrats doing especially well among growing populations such as non-whites, urban residents, and college graduates. New voters were another source of encouragement, as exit polls in November 2006 gave Patrick a whopping 66 percent among voters under 30. Barack Obama’s victory in Massachusetts in the 2008 presidential election seemed to put an exclamation point on the pro-Democratic trend.
But just over seven months ago, the moods of the two major parties in Massachusetts did a complete switch. In January, Scott Brown became the first Republican US Senator to be newly elected from Massachusetts in 44 years, energizing a GOP already encouraged by Patrick’s poor job approval ratings for much of his term.
Brown’s victory also seems to have helped set the agenda for this fall’s campaign. Instead of running again as the “together we can” progressive who won in 2006, Patrick is likely to emphasize his fiscal discipline following the economic crash of 2008. And his opponents are likely to say that the Patrick administration hasn’t been tough enough in downsizing state government.
Conventional wisdom is that the “middle” holds the key to the 2010 elections: middle-of-the-road ideology, voters who don’t declare themselves Democrats or Republicans, suburbs with average incomes and educational levels, etc. But election results aren’t that simple, as evidenced by the cross currents in CommonWealth magazine’s 10 political regions in Massachusetts. Both the richest and the poorest communities in the state have driven recent vote swings.
Shopper’s World, comprising some of Boston’s most highly educated and affluent suburbs, was one of seven regions that Mitt Romney carried in 2002 while winning his single term as governor. While Shopper’s World had been part of the GOP base for most of the 20th century, it had turned away from the party during the 1990s, when the national version of the party became identified with religious devotion and social conservatism. Romney recaptured the region with an emphasis on efficiency and reform (specifically, warning that the Democratic Party couldn’t be trusted to run both the executive and legislative branches) and reversed trends in places like high-toned Sudbury, which went from 37 percent for George W. Bush in 2000 to 58 percent for Romney two years later. His success seemed to confirm that a candidate who was moderate and reformist on fiscal issues and who was liberal (or, in Romney’s case, who didn’t mind being assumed liberal) on gay rights and abortion was the ideal for the Massachusetts electorate.
Yet this year the more forthrightly conservative Scott Brown lost Shopper’s World by a wide margin and was still elected senator (again, by carrying seven of our 10 regions). He made up the difference by running surprisingly well in distressed urban areas outside of the Boston economic orbit. Brown, in fact, did better in the Brink Cities, which includes four of the five poorest communities in the state, than any of the Republicans elected governor over the past two decades (if you don’t count Bill Weld’s re-election in 1994). In Fall River, Brown got 41 percent, well above the 26 percent that John McCain received in the 2008 presidential election (though, because of a much lower turnout, Brown got about 400 fewer votes than McCain did).
Neither Shopper’s World nor the Brink Cities made much of a difference in the 2006 gubernatorial race, as Patrick won them both by almost 2-1 margins and carried every other region except Cranberry Country. But few expect things to go so easily for him this year.
Aside from the Brink Cities region’s continued economic doldrums and newfound willingness to vote Republican, Patrick no doubt remembers that he was relatively unpopular among Democratic primary voters there in 2006, getting 43 percent of the vote compared with 50 percent statewide. (Barack Obama didn’t do well in the Brink Cities either; Hillary Clinton beat him 66-31 in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.) And independent gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill could be a threat in a region that often feels that it gets shortchanged by Beacon Hill. Just ask voters on the South Coast or in Springfield about paying for Boston’s Big Dig and then being told there’s no money for rail service in the rest of the state. The Brink Cities region gave independent candidate Ross Perot 24 percent of its vote in the 1992 presidential race, and Cahill is clearly hoping that his Perot-like warnings of government overspending (will he associate the Bay State’s health care system with a “giant sucking sound,” the way Perot said that the NAFTA treaty would ruin the US economy?) can similarly resonate there.
At the same time, this year’s Republican nominee, Charlie Baker, may be an excellent fit for Shopper’s World. Unlike Romney and 2002 GOP nominee Kerry Healey, Baker is quite explicit about his liberal views on social issues, and his pick of openly gay state Sen. Richard Tisei as a running mate is probably a reassuring sign in places like Lexington and Newton. Then there’s Green candidate Jill Stein, who got 5 percent of the vote in Shopper’s World the last time she ran for governor, in 2002, and could pull votes away from Patrick this time.
If Patrick gets squeezed at both ends—in the socially liberal suburbs and in the Commonwealth’s economically besieged second-tier cities—he can still count on Boston itself, as well as the Vacationland towns in the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley. But there just aren’t enough votes in those areas to achieve a statewide victory.
The Democratic Party as sardine can
“This is the best chance Republicans in Massachusetts have had to gain ground for more than 20 years,” wrote MassBeacon.com’s Conor Yunits in March, after crunching the numbers and discovering that Brown, who beat Martha Coakley by only about 5 points statewide, actually won almost two-thirds of the state’s House districts.
Why the difference between a small statewide margin and a huge geographic sweep? Because most Democratic votes are packed into a few urban areas. Coakley won the cities and towns that are at least partially within the Route 128 belt by a 57-42 margin, which helps to explain why the Brown phenomenon largely escaped the notice of Boston media outlets until the final days of the campaign. Brown, by the way, won the rest of the state by almost precisely the same margin, 57-43.
Brown’s strongest showing in the state was 73.7 percent in the Worcester County town of Douglas, but Coakley got higher percentages in 19 communities—led by Cambridge with 84.1 percent and also including Somerville, Brookline, and Northampton. Coakley carried Boston with 69 percent and, as blogger Chris Lovett calculated, captured over 90 percent of the vote in several precincts in Mattapan and Roxbury.
Flashy numbers for Coakley, but they mean that “Brown territory,” where he won with strong if not Soviet-style margins, takes up most of the state. Brown won 239 of the state’s 351 municipalities (and tied Coakley in one more). This is similar to the GOP’s narrow wins in the gubernatorial elections of 2002 (when Romney won 236 towns), 1998 (Cellucci won 270), and 1990 (Weld won 274).
This geographical asymmetry does seem to have caused trouble for the Democrats over the past few decades. As I wrote in early 2006, they seem to win big in Massachusetts or not win at all—a theorem since supported by the easy wins for Patrick and Obama and the close loss for Coakley. Republicans have the ability to shift geographic bases from election to election, depending on whom they nominate and which issues they want to emphasize, while Democrats always rely on the same few communities to provide the bulk of their vote. (For complete town-level results for gubernatorial elections in 1990, 1998, 2002, and 2006—as well as the 2010 special US Senate election—go to the Maps and Stats page.
This is not necessarily fatal for Patrick, who can theoretically seal his re-election by winning only a few dozen communities. (Brown beat Coakley statewide by about 110,000 votes; Patrick’s margin in Boston, Cambridge, and Worcester alone was more than that.) But Massachusetts is something of an aberration among large industrial states in that an “urban strategy” rarely prevails in tight elections. We haven’t had the equivalent of the New York City vs. upstate, Chicago vs. downstate equilibrium in many decades. A Democrat can win here only by reaching deep into suburbia, most often in a northwest direction. And the reason Republicans rarely win big here is that it’s been more than 50 years since they lost their lock on the bedroom communities. As Catholic voters emigrated from Boston in the ’50s and ’60s, Bay State suburbs became more Democratic. Then the “good government” Democrat personified by Brookline’s Michael Dukakis (first elected governor in the post-Watergate year of 1974) weakened the GOP’s advantage among suburbanites who were repelled by the machine politics associated with Boston—an advantage that Republicans have since been trying to regain by tying Democratic candidates to the less-than-sterling ethics of the state Legislature.
Deval Patrick vs. the Green Lantern
Though Patrick never totally got over some early-term missteps (like the expensive new drapes in his office), most analysts say that the still-weak economy is the biggest impediment to his reelection. Patrick may be up against what political blogger Matt Yglesias calls the “Green Lantern Theory of Governing.” Essentially, that’s the belief that a chief executive, like a superhero, “can accomplish absolutely anything” if he or she tries hard enough. Or, as the Phoenix’s David Bernstein recently put it, “nothing in political history suggests that voters will do anything other than place all credit or blame for economic conditions on the chief executive.”
A poll released by Suffolk University in late May offered some confirmation of this conventional wisdom, with 66 percent of the respondents who felt that the state’s economy is “improving” also saying they approve of Patrick’s job performance—and 72 percent of those who didn’t see an economic improvement giving a disapproving grade to the governor. This phenomenon explains why Baker rolled out the simple campaign slogan “Had enough?” this spring. And if Patrick offers some evidence of economic improvement, Baker will presumably respond, “not good enough.”
Running against the Democratic administration in Washington, Brown did make major gains in areas that were hurt the most by the recession. The biggest city he carried was Lowell, which had an unemployment rate of 11.2 percent last year—well above the state average of 8.4 percent. Outside of cities with large minority populations, such as Brockton and Lawrence, Coakley had a lot of trouble holding on to Patrick votes in communities with high unemployment rates. By contrast, in places that have weathered the recession comparatively well—which happen to be places where most media professionals work and live—there was little change from 2006 to January 2010. In Cambridge and Somerville, there wasn’t even a slight tremor in the political landscape this winter.
That contrast makes it all the riskier for Patrick to prematurely declare the economy in recovery—especially if he does so from the capital city, which never got the worst of the recession. One danger for the Democrats is a continued fall-off in support from the labor vote, which is stronger outside of Route 128. The CNN exit poll from the 2006 election had Patrick winning 69 percent of all voters living in households with union members. There were no exit polls for this winter’s US Senate election, but a Suffolk University poll taken a few days before the vote had 53 percent of the same group planning to vote for Brown. There is simply no plausible way for Patrick to be reelected if he falls short of a majority among union members.
There is one more cautionary note for Patrick. As of this writing, he had not yet hit 50 percent in any major election poll, but there’s a widespread belief that he can win with a plurality, thanks to Baker and Cahill splitting the anti-incumbent vote. But there are very few examples of a president or governor with low approval ratings getting reelected this way. A credible third candidate did not save New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, from defeat last year. At the presidential level, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush still lost bids for reelection despite well-publicized third-party candidates making a play for the anti-incumbent vote. Instead of drawing votes away from Baker, independent Cahill may well get most of his support in November from voters who aren’t fond of Patrick but aren’t comfortable voting for a Republican. Patrick needs to minimize the Cahill vote, and the only way he can do that is to come up with a message that will appeal to the most disaffected residents of Massachusetts—the ones outside of the Boston media bubble.Next: The 10 political regions of Massachusetts